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New Canucks coach learned the hard way in NHL

Travis Green to be introduced today
Former NHLer Travis Green has spent the past four seasons as head coach of the Canucks’ American Hockey League affiliate in Utica, New York.

Anyone who looks at statistics alone and sees that Travis Green played 970 NHL games has no idea how difficult the start and excruciating the end were for the centre from Castlegar.

Green’s size and offensive ability in the WHL made him a 23rd-overall draft pick of the New York Islanders in 1989. He had 60 goals and 128 points in his final season of junior hockey, split between the Spokane Chiefs and the Medicine Hat Tigers, but spent the next 2 years in the AHL with the Islanders farm team.

Green had to learn to be a professional and develop the defensive side of his game, and when he finally made the NHL it was as a two-way centre frequently used in checking situations. He was good enough to play for 13 seasons and five teams pulling two tours with both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Anaheim Ducks.

In his final NHL season, 2006-07, Green was 36 years old and largely discouraged by the time he changed teams for the sixth and final time, going to Toronto from Anaheim on waivers in January. He finished that year with one goal and one assist in 31 games, and the NHL s Official Guide and Record Book actually notes that Green missed the majority of the 2006-07 season as a healthy scratch.

He decided he wanted to coach. It’s a wonder he chose to stay in hockey at all.

“Travis had it hard in the beginning and he had it hard at the end,” Mike Johnston, one of Green’s coaching mentors, said Tuesday. “I talked a lot to him about his experiences as he finished (as an NHL player). And it was really hard. Like most pro guys, they get close to the end of their career, but don t want to believe it. They want to keep playing in the same role.

“For older players, going through those sorts of things, Travis is a great resource. But for younger kids, who definitely have to go through (growing pains), hes done it himself. There's nothing like telling a player: That happened to me, too. Ive been where youre at. That's really valuable.

And that's partly why Green looks like a good fit to coach the Canucks, whose top priority as an organization the next couple of years is to complete their rebuild and develop young players who will be new or almost new to the NHL.

Green, 46, has never been an NHL head coach nor even an NHL assistant and this will be the second time in three years that Canuck president Trevor Linden and general manager Jim Benning shimmy out on that limb.

And yet they know what theyre getting in Green, who has done a lot with a little as the Utica Comets coach the last four AHL seasons, squeezing winning records and one extended playoff run from teams whose talent and depth were strained by the Canucks NHL needs and the franchise s failure over multiple administrations to draft well and adequately stock the talent pipeline.

Green learned much of his craft from Johnston, who was the top assistant to former Canuck head coach Marc Crawford from 1999 until 2006, but really found his calling as GM and head coach of the WHL s Portland Winterhawks. It was to Portland that Johnston recruited Green in 2009 to work as his assistant in both coaching and management.

Green’s launch-point into coaching pros was the 2012-13 WHL season when Johnston was suspended by the league and replaced by Green, who merely guided the Winterhawks to a 37-8-2 record, the league championship and a Memorial Cup final.

Ex-Canuck GM Mike Gillis hired Green that summer to guide Vancouver's minor-league team, and Green chose a year later to stay in Utica as a head coach when Johnston, hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins, tried to bring his protg along to the NHL as an assistant.

“Travis had played for me at two world championships, so I got to know him a little bit as a player,” Johnston said. “I knew he was a student of the game. I just thought I d go meet him (after he retired as a player) and talk to him and see what he wanted to do and he told me: Really, I d like to coach. I believe Travis, in the last four or five years of his playing career, was really preparing to be a coach. He had no coaching experience, but I thought he could learn from me on the coaching side in Portland, and I could get things from him as far as what it was like as a player in junior and what it was like as a player in the NHL.

Former Canuck coach Willie Desjardins was criticized for not being lenient enough with young players, even as he was successfully developing a bunch of them. An irony to the Green hiring is that the new coach may be even more demanding than Desjardins, according to a team insider.

Johnston said: “There are some guys who can be really demanding and hard, but the players take it the right way. They don’t get pissed off. Travis has that type of ability.

He’s a very driven guy. He is a hockey guy through and through; he could talk hockey 24 hours a day. I think for him, he's just got a good personality and can relate to a lot of different types of people. He s got an upbeat, positive personality, but can be very demanding and really push people. But I think he does it in the right way.”

The Canucks think so, too.