Wednesday, 28 March 2012 09:23

Bracken native is SJHL coach of the year

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By Matthew Liebenberg — This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A gritty, hardworking defenceman — who started to play minor hockey in Swift Current and then went on to a successful coaching career — received the 2012 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) coach of the year award.

Doug Johnson, who grew up in the Bracken area and still returns regularly to help out on the family farm, has been turning around the fortunes of the Nipawin Hawks since becoming the team’s head coach and general manager in 2010.

After three seasons of not making the playoffs and being stuck at the bottom of the standings, he is credited for leading the most-improved team in the standings during the 2011/12 season. The Hawks finished third in their conference and fourth overall in the league at the end of the regular season.

While it’s nice to be recognized, Johnson felt it was more of an organizational award for a real team effort.

“There’s a lot of great coaches in this league that do an outstanding job,” he mentioned. “I was fortunate to have 24 kids and a great support staff that have all bought in and done an outstanding job.”

Hawks President Dennis Botterill said the team's turnaround was a dream come true for the organization that happened even faster than they anticipated.

“We have to credit him for doing that,” he said about Johnson. “It’s his philosophies and the things he did to bring players in and to be able to drive them to play at the standard they’re playing at.”

Johnson played minor hockey in Swift Current with the Pee Wee Kinsman and the Bantam Rotary Raiders. In his first year of midget hockey, he was the captain of the Legionnaires.

At the age of 17, he went to Nipawin to play for the Hawks. After three seasons he moved to Billings, Montana in his final year of junior hockey to play for the Billings Bulls.  He turned down university scholarships to play professional hockey for six years with teams in California, New York, Louisiana and Texas.

His hockey career came to an end after an injury to his left hand in the summer of 2003 as a result of a methane gas explosion in a burning pit on the farm. He then started coaching and got a job as assistant coach with the Billings Bulls in 2004. He became their head coach the following year, when he led them to a position in the playoffs.

For the 2006/07 season he became the assistant coach and eventually the head coach of the Odessa Jackalopes.

He spent two years as assistant coach with the Omaha Lancers before returning to Saskatchewan in 2010 as the new head coach of the Nipawin Hawks.

The team started the 2011/12 season at a blistering pace, with only one defeat after 10 games. It earned the Hawks a Top 10 spot in the CJHL weekly rankings.

“Our start was a little surprising because we had such a young team,” Johnson said. “We rode that youthful enthusiasm, used it up for all it’s worth and in a way it hurt us because things came easy to us early on and then when it got a little tighter 15 games into the season some of our young guys weren’t prepared.”

The team then had a rough 25-game spell until the Christmas break, but the players returned with renewed vigour.

“The young guys realized how good players they are and the older guys realized they just need to buckle down a little bit more and this second half has been outstanding for us,” he said.

The team's goal was to be 10 to 12 games over 0.500 at the end of the season, which they surpassed with 14 games over 0.500. He is willing to make trades to find the right players that are committed to the team's hard-working style.

“I try to make an exciting game and push the players and make them play as fast as possible,” he said. “If you can make the plays faster than anybody else you’re going to have a distinct advantage.”

He admitted that trading players is one of the toughest parts of his job as a coach.

“It would be great to go a whole season without a trade but sometimes they are necessary and sometimes kids just force their way out of a line-up where they’re not fitting in,” he said.

He described the trading of Swift Current forward Alex Laird to the Kindersley Klippers as an incredibly difficult decision.

“He did everything we’ve asked him to, but we had two devastating injuries,” he said.  “Sometimes, you have to look at the betterment of the whole team more than the individual.”

The Hawks had a tough first-round playoff series against the Battleford North Stars. The series was only decided in the seventh game, which the North Stars won 2-1 in overtime.

Johnson has signed a three-year contract with the Hawks, which he felt will give stability to himself and the organization.

“There hasn’t been long-term stability within the coaching ranks for the Nipawin Hawks,” he noted. “It’s nice to be recognized by the board as doing a good job and they want me to stick around and help make the team better and better.”

He has no plans beyond his current contract, and his goal is to make sure the Hawks have as much success as possible.

“The more I focus on the past or the future I lose what’s happening right now,” he said.

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