Mike Johnston was bubbling over Saturday night after his team took a 7-3 win over Seattle in front of a Moda Center crowd of 8,705 to open the 2016-17 season and his second tenure as coach of the Hawks. And it wasn't just the win that had him pumped up.
"It was exciting," said Johnston, who opened last season as head coach of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. "To be honest, our fans are amazing. It really is quite an atmosphere here. No matter where you've coached, to coach in this building in front of those fans... they were into the game right from the very beginning.
"We're a young team, we're going to make mistakes. At the beginning of the second we let in a goal. At the beginning of the third we let in a goal. Hopefully we'll grow from those mistakes but I thought they showed great resiliency. We had six guys who had never played in the Western Hockey League before. And we had such a young team that I was worried when it got tied up. I wanted to see how we'd react. I didn't really shorten the bench in any way until maybe eight minutes left in the game.
"I just let the guys play through it. I wanted to see how they'd react. It's really what I'm going to have to do for the first part of this year. You may look at it some nights and say, 'What the hell is he doing? Why isn't he changing?' But I have to let some of these kids get these experiences if we're going to be a really good team. They've got to learn to play and I've got to protect them, too, so it's going to be a fine line at this level,"
With all the youth, Johnston knows it's important to get off to a good start.
"It is important to get confidence for young guys," he said. "If things aren't going well, they have a tendency to squeeze the stick and be very nervous when making plays but at the same time, we have to be very patient with them. We have to just focus on 'Are we getting better? What are we correcting?' every single game and every single practice and almost be oblivious to a lot of the other stuff that's going on around us, including the scoreboard and including the standings. If you focus on the right things, about November we'll be on the decent side of things.
"I like our group. I think we're going to give other teams trouble because of our speed. We're dangerous. Can we score enough? That is going to be the question. I was quite happy with the way we played tonight."
Ryan Hughes and Evan Weinger had three points apiece for the Hawks, who played without Keegan Iverson and Caleb Jones, still in their NHL camps. The Thunderbirds were missing three NHL camp invitees,