(FREDERICTON, NB) There were no bands, no banners, no cheering crowds, but for Mike Johnston, it was a homecoming, of sorts.
The recently released coach of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins spent the past couple of days working with friend Gardiner MacDougall and the UNB Varsity Reds.
“It was kind of neat for me to be here, kind of refreshing,” says Johnston.
Johnston said he hadn’t been on the ice since being fired by the Penguins, on December 12th.
He’d run Pittsburgh’s star-laden line-up for just 18 months, amassing a record of 58-37-and-15.
Johnston’s been laying low ever since, but couldn’t pass up MacDougall’s invitation to return to Fredericton.
“It was the chance to give the team a change of a voice, for their building up to the playoffs,” says Johnston. “They had ten days to get ready, and it’s been good.”
Johnston began his coaching career here, running the UNB hockey program between 1989 and 1994.
“This is a special place for us. Both our kids were born here, we bought our first house here. It’s been good to be back.”
Despite his departure from Pittsburgh, Johnston hasn’t given up on coaching again.
He says he’s looking at opportunities, but wouldn’t be specific. He says it could lead him to Europe or back to junior. Johnston says another NHL opportunity could present itself, especially with expansion on the horizon.
“I don’t want to rush into anything,” says Johnston. “This few days here, this gives me an opportunity to get on the ice, be with a team again, talk to coaches, be in the hockey environment. It’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Johnston says he’s paid close attention to UNB hockey since leaving Fredericton, in the mid-90s.
He likes what the program has become, especially under MacDougall’s leadership.
“It’s a quality place to come to school and it’s like a pro hockey program,” says Johnston. “Gardiner has done a phenomenal job.”
As for what’s next for Mike Johnston... “I’m not going to make a decision until I’ve had three or four months to breathe and look around at what I want to do.”
Rest assured, as he looks around, he’ll be keeping an eye on the Varsity Reds’ playoff run.