After missing the playoffs three years in a row, the University of Regina men’s hockey team is looking to have a turnaround season under newly acquired head coach, Todd Johnson.
Johnson was appointed to the position in April, following the retirement of former head coach, Blaine Sautner.
“It feels good,” Johnson said, of his new post. “It’s a little different scenario than what I was in last year, and it’s nice to be on the head coach’s side of the desk, and making the decisions.”
Johnson spent the last two years as an assistant coach with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice, where he helped guide the team to a WHL championship and an appearance in the 2011 Memorial Cup.
The rookie head coach is confident the lessons he learned during his time in Kootenay won’t be lost in his transition to CIS hockey.
“I was very fortunate with the Kootenay Ice that our coaching staff actually worked as a staff,” Johnson said. “Obviously the head coach…the ultimate decision was theirs, but everyone had input, everyone ran certain aspects of the game. You learn from others that were there.”
One of the most important lessons Johnson took away from his time with Kootenay is that sometimes raw talent is no match for good old-fashioned work ethic.
“By no means did we have the best team in the WHL when we won the WHL, and a lot of that was that guys bought in, and guys worked for each other,” he said. “It was just that work ethic day in and day out that really made that team a special team to work with.”
Johnson has wasted no time in relaying that lesson to his new team – and the response so far has been just what he is looking for.
“I think the guys are hungry, and if I can bring out the best in them then I can’t see why we can’t make the playoffs.” – Todd Johnson
“Even though we just started on [Sept 3], the guys’ attitudes seem to be very positive. They’re working hard,” he said. “I can’t see why we can’t make the playoffs. There’s a lot of returning players from last year and the last couple of years, and I don’t think that it sat well with them that they didn’t make the playoffs.
“I think the guys are hungry, and if I can bring out the best in them then I can’t see why we can’t make the playoffs.”
Before they can think about the playoffs, however, the team has a lot of work to do both on and off the ice.
Right now, it’s all about digging in under the age-old mantra of “practice makes perfect.”
“Whether in practice, whether in your studies, I think you have to work hard, and I really truly believe that how hard you work in practice is what’s going to transpire in a game,” Johnson said.
“If you take short cuts in practice, those shortcuts will come out, and usually will come out negatively in a game, so those are the things that we’re trying to address already.”
While on-ice training is no doubt important, building a winning hockey team takes more than sharp skates and solid conditioning.
“I think the guys, because they’re all in different faculties, they’re not around each other quite as much as a junior hockey team,” Johnson said. “It’s important that when they do come to the rink, that they are close.”
The team will have a good opportunity for team building during the first week in October, when they head north to take on the University of Alaska in exhibition play.
“I just think it’s going to be a great experience,” Johnson said. “We’re going to go play two games against the University of Alaska, Anchorage and Fairbanks.”
While Johnson has his work cut out for him as new head coach of the Cougars, he’s confident he can pave the way for a return to prominence in U of R men’s hockey.
“I want this program to be successful. It’s been quite a few years,” he said. “I think it was back when I played that they were really strong. I went to the University of Calgary, and I think we played the U of R in the league final, and that’s what I want. Ideally, I would love to be in Saskatoon playing for a national title in the next couple years.”