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The real question is, how did Mike Johnston find the time to write a book in the first place, let alone a second edition of Hockey Plays and Strategies? I mean, how did he even find the time to answer a few of my questions for this column?
And if you aren't familiar with Johnston—wait'll I get to his resume—you will know his co-author on this and four other hockey books (and another coming later this year), former NHL star Ryan Walter.
But first, Hockey Plays and Strategies is exactly what you think it'll be, a well-illustrated, precisely described guide to hockey plays in the offensive, neutral, and defensive zones, face-off techniques, and instructions on specific skills, techniques, position responsibilities, and team player requirements. Added for the second edition is a section on scouting the competition and adjusting your game strategy accordingly.
As the promotional material promises, “No matter what level you coach, Hockey Plays and Strategies will guide smart, consistent, and winning play.” It came out in August 2018, from Human Kinetics, a specialty publisher in Illinois; the first edition came out in 2009.
Now, on to those impressive resumes, and then we'll hear from both Johnston and Walter.
Johnston, who owns a Masters Degree in Coaching Science, has been coaching for 30 years, with his most high-profile gig as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, from June 2014 to December 2015, and also was an associate coach with the Canucks and Kings. Internationally, he was a part of Team Canada's coaching staff in Nagano in 1998, and more successfully with two World Junior gold medals, three Spengler Cup titles, and at the World championships, two golds, two silvers and a bronze. But for all that, Johnston is most associated with junior hockey and the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, with division titles, and conference championships to his name, and 22 players drafted by the NHL during his time there. He's back there now, following his NHL days, as the VP, general manager and head coach for the team.
Walter's pedigree is great too, especially his 15 seasons in the NHL, drafted second overall by the Washington Capitals in 1978. He's got a Stanley Cup ring from his time with the Montreal Canadiens, but another highlight was two seasons with his hometown Vancouver Canucks. He's played in the World Junior tournament (as Canada's captain), represented his country in three World Championships, and played in the NHL All-Star game. He was also a vice-president of the National Hockey League Players Association, and was honoured as NHL Man of the Year. He also coached Canada's National Women's team to a gold medal, served as an assistant coach with the Canucks, and was a broadcaster on TV and radio. He's used his Master of Arts Degree in Leadership/Business towards his books, speaking engagements, and much more.
Each with decades in hockey, the first, obvious question, is how did Johnston and Walter become a formidable team? “We really connected when he was an assistant coach in Vancouver and I was broadcasting. That was our big connect,” said Walter, on the phone at the airport heading to another speaking gig. “Then we've been friends for a long time. I felt so bad when he got released in Pittsburgh, that was almost like me getting released. He's a very spectacular man, and I really appreciate him.”
Johnston was pleased that Human Kinetics approached the duo about another edition. He had already gotten plenty of feedback from the first edition.
“It is always nice to hear back from coaches and how the book had impacted both them and their team,” wrote Johnston in an email. “The overall response has been very positive and we are encouraged that this 2nd Edition has accomplished our goals of staying current with new tactics and strategies.”
The first one came about, said Johnston, because the publisher “felt there was a void in the hockey technical area. Ryan and I decided that we would present the material in a way that would appeal to coaches of any age group. Coaches can pick a strategy from each chapter that appeals to them and their team.”
There are plenty of graphics and illustrations, the action on the rink complimented by text and an image. As coaches with years of experience, Johnston and Walter knew the game, but sharing that knowledge, especially with the illustrators tasked with putting the action on the sketch of the rink, was an issue.
“That was a challenge because the illustrators had limited hockey knowledge,” said Johnston. “The publisher was very patient to make sure all drawings were accurate.”
The tips on scouting and implementing scouting reports into practice was the most significant addition. Johnston addressed the concept and the work in putting it into the second edition.
“The number one priority for coaches is to prepare their team to play to their potential by developing the necessary skills, tactics and strategy,” he said. “Along with that it is important to recognize the competition by developing a scouting report which reflects their individual and team – strengths/weaknesses.”
In addition to the two editions of Hockey Plays and Strategies, Walter and Johnston also teamed on two books from 2007: Simply the Best: Insights and Strategies from Great Hockey Coaches, and Simply the Best: Players on Performance. Each are exactly as described, with coaches and players talking about hockey.
“The players and coaches books that Mike and I did together are both little jewels that I think most people haven't read, and we did what we wanted to do, which was to interview … just interview the players, interview the coaches, and then give the reader the exact content,” said Walter.
The other books on Walter's list were ones he worked on with his wife, Jenni: Off the Bench and Into the Game: Eight Business Success Strategies from Professional Sport (out in 2010); HUNGRY: Fuelling Your Best Game (2011); and Great Shift (out later in 2019), which is “about how to change or shift the mindset of your team.”
What made Walter go from player to writer? “Great question,” he chuckled. “It's not the money, that's for sure, that's for sure. I think two things. I think first I found that I'm a reader, so I'm reading everything. Right now, I'm into leadership and neuroscience, so I try to read as broad as possible. I think what happens to me is I get full. I read 30 or 40 books and then I think … my wife Jenny and I run a little leadership, team development, performance development business. We do corporate training, corporate speaking, keynotes, all of that. So I get full and I think to myself, 'Boy,'—and here's the second part—'if I could write this book for one person, if it could add value to one person, then I'm going to write it.'” (See https://www.ryanwalter.com/ for more on his post-hockey career.)
Besides Don Cherry, with his one game of NHL experience, is there another NHL veteran with six books to his name? Walter has done self-publishing and worked with publishers, too.
What are some of the similarities between writing and playing hockey?
"There's a lot, that's all of life, isn't it? Where you cull from what you've learned. I've found that writing is not easy. I don't know if I've met an author yet that has said, 'Aw, that was easy.' You've got to bang away ... you've got iterations that you go through,” he said.
For Great Shift, he admitted that there have been four versions of the first chapter, so far. “I think there's a lot of resilience in writing, there's certainly, all these things come from the NHL. But, you know, when you've got a purpose and you're going to do it, and you tell people you're going to do it, you get it done,” he said.
There are autobiographical elements from his hockey days in his books, but none are a true life story of Ryan Walter. “Any story that I give around the NHL is always a positive story about somebody or something that happened great. So I'm not telling anything out of school, with our guys,” Walter admitted.
As for work ethic, Walter has a great partner in Johnston, someone he greatly admires. In an email, I told Johnston that I didn't know how he found time to reply to me.
Walter knew why. “I liked your comment, here's Mike, in the middle of the season, and he gets right back to you with a page full of notes. That's Mike.”
LET THE BODY TALK
A complimentary and incredibly unique book also out from Human Kinetics is Hockey Anatomy, from two Chicago Blackhawks employees: the team physician Dr. Michael Terry, and Paul Goodman, the strength and conditioning coach.
In short, the “Fastest Game on Ice” has never been better described than it is here, in minute detail, how the body works during the game of hockey, and the exercises that they recommend for optimal performance.
The text is complimented by fascinating images as well, detailed drawings of the muscles and bones, the way the body is contorting and, well, moving, which is difficult to convey in a static image but it works here.
“Truth is, hockey players are unique because of the way we move,” writes Jonathan Toews in the foreword.
The co-authors walk a tricky line, between being a readable book for hockey players, and further down the spectrum, having it read like an anatomy textbook. It works, but to truly succeed, you'll have to actually DO the work described ... maybe a Writer's Anatomy book next to help us ink-stained wretches get in shape?
* George Grimm has his second book in the works, and posted a note to Facebook: “Big day today! I just sent the completed manuscript for my next book Guardians of the Goal to Sports Publishing. Guardians of the Goal traces the history of New York Rangers goaltenders from their inception in 1926 through the 2017-18 season. It also provides an overview of the era’s that these guys played in as well as a look at the practice and emergency netminders who filled in when needed. I also highlight the careers of 8 Franchise Goaltenders, Davey Kerr, Chuck Rayne, Gump Worsley, Ed Giacomin, John Davidson, John Vanbiesbrouck, Mike Richter and Henrik Lundqvist who were each uniquely identified with the Rangers and set the standard for those that would follow. Guardians of the Goal is scheduled for publication this fall.”
* Ira Gitler died recently at the age of 90. He was primarily known as a jazz historian, but he also wrote two books on hockey: Blood on the Ice: Hockey's Most Violent Moments from 1974 and Ice Hockey A to Z, which came out in 1978. The Washington Post has a lengthy obituary on him here.
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