By Dave Leaderhouse
Editor’s note: This is the 12th and final edition in a series of features on the 12 head coaches in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League that will run every Friday throughout the summer. The intent is to familiarize the fans with those who are in charge of the various clubs as there has been a significant turnover in the last couple of seasons. Often ready to take a backseat to the players, as those are the ones who deserve to be in the spotlight, the coaches and general managers shoulder the responsibility for putting the product on the ice and rightfully deserve credit for making the SJHL one of the premiere Junior “A” leagues in the country.
Doug Johnson is about to begin the final year of his first decade as head coach and general manager of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Nipawin Hawks and it shouldn’t take long for him to get his name in that franchise’s record book.
The 43-year-old Johnson needs just one more victory to equal the standard set by Bruce Thompson, who ironically was his coach when he played with the Hawks in the mid-1990’s. Two more victories and he will be all alone at the top of that list with an even 300 wins and that number will undoubtedly continue to grow.
His philosophy for success is simple.
“What you want is for players who want to be in Nipawin,” says Johnson, a three-time coach-of-the-year winner. “You try to make the kids better every day, but they have to be proud to wear that jersey; have pride in their work.”
There certainly has been a lot of pride over the years.
When Johnson returned to Nipawin in 2010 after more than a decade in the United States as a minor professional player-turned coach, the Hawks were a bit slow out of the gate winning just 17 games and missing the playoffs for a second straight year.
Since then it has been a steady climb to the top culminating in back-to-back regular-season pennants and a Canalta Cup championship in 2017-18. There was one stretch where the Hawks reached at least the semi-final round for four straight years.
While the wins have provided a level of job security it is his ability to get his players noticed by post-secondary institutions that has made Nipawin an attractive destination. From the championship team two years ago nine players were offered opportunities to further their education while continuing to play hockey. Every year has seen others move on including a stretch of six straight years where at least one player was given an NCAA Division 1 scholarship.
Johnson says what he looks for in a player is their ability to skate, hockey intelligence and work ethic. From there it is moulding the players into a team and that formula appears to have worked out alright.
Despite leading the league during the regular season last year, the Hawks were eliminated in the quarter-final round by the Yorkton Terriers, a feisty squad that jumped into a 3-1 advantage before needing a seventh and deciding game to end Nipawin’s season at its earliest juncture in five years.
Johnson says those are things you learn from and with the Hawks “not losing very much” it is expected that Nipawin will once again be challenging for a league title.
“I really like what we have coming back,” acknowledges Johnson.
The table appears to be set for another exciting year of hockey in north-east Saskatchewan. The Hawks have become one of the stingiest teams defensively in recent years and if they buy into Johnson’s philosophies then another solid campaign is there for the taking. With that comes a record that will only grow as long as Johnson remains with the team.