August 15, 2020

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Ed Willes: Green's passion for process, attention to detail give Canucks' coach an edge

The 'overnight success' that is Vancouver Canucks' head coach Travis Green actually took about 30 years of learning. He's had great mentors, tough lessons and has made many personal sacrifices along the way. Now he's enjoying the Stanley Cup playoffs in Edmonton with his young team.
The 'overnight success' that is Vancouver Canucks' head coach Travis Green actually took about 30 years of learning. He's had great mentors, tough lessons and has made many personal sacrifices along the way. Now he's enjoying the Stanley Cup playoffs in Edmonton with his young team. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /Getty Images Files

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EDMONTON — Lorne Henning, who has been in the game longer than the curved stick, has seen the story play out countless times.

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A young coach begins to gain some notoriety and his career is fast-tracked. Although still inexperienced, he jumps at the first offer he gets and, initially, enjoys some success.

Then the game starts to fight back, as it always does. Maybe the goalie goes into a slump. Maybe the star centre gets injured. Whatever it is, the young coach, who’s known only winning, discovers he’s ill-equipped to handle everything the hockey gods can throw at him.

The shine wears off the golden child. He’s fired and immediately moves to the end of the coaching line. Sometimes he never makes it back to the front of that line.

“It’s not about taking the first job,” says Henning, who’s played, coached and managed in the NHL for almost 50 years. “It’s about taking the right job when you’re ready.”

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Which brings us to Travis Green.

Henning was an assistant coach with the New York Islanders in the early ’90s when Green broke in as a hotshot centre from the WHL. He watched him struggle under the demands of Al Arbour, then watched him morph from a scorer into a reliable third-line centre who played 970 career games over 14 seasons.

When Henning was the Canucks’ assistant general manager in the late aughts, he scouted games in Portland where his former player had taken an assistant’s job with the Winterhawks. Four years later, he interviewed Green for the head coaching position with the Canucks’ AHL-affiliate in Utica; an interview that was a formality because Henning had made his mind up about Green.

He was ready and he’s been ready for everything that’s followed.

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“I decided right away I wanted to be a head coach,” Green says over the phone from Edmonton where the Canucks have taken a 2-0 lead over the St. Louis Blues in their opening-round, best-of-seven playoff series.

“I felt there were a couple of ways to go. Sometimes you’re a third assistant in the NHL and work your way up. Or you take the longer way and you go back to the roots of coaching. I just felt like that was the best place for me.

“You can play a long time. You still have to learn how to coach.”

Now in his third year behind the Canucks’ bench, Green is extracting the most out of his team by applying the lessons he learned from an extraordinary roster of coaches in his hockey journey. In no particular order he played for Arbour, Henning, Mike Milbury and current Dallas head coach Rick Bowness on the Island.

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He did a two-year tour in Toronto under Pat Quinn, then two years in Boston under current Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan before returning to Toronto where he played for Paul Maurice.

He retired as a player in 2008 after a year with Zug in Switzerland, then was hired as Mike Johnston’s assistant with Portland in the WHL.

Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green (right) shares a laugh with Jacob Markstrom and Elias Pettersson after the first session on the first day of training camp at Rogers Arena, July, 13, 2020. Photo by RICHARD LAM /PNG

Along the way he took a bit from each man, absorbed what he liked, discarded what he didn’t. Arbour, according to Henning, had the biggest influence and Green doesn’t dispute that. But the others all left their mark on the 49-year-old from Castlegar.

“I’ve learned lot from some amazing coaches,” Green says. “Al was a big influence because I was so young. He was almost a father-figure to me.”

A father figure who dispensed tough love.

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“Al didn’t make things easy for Travis,” says Henning. “He’d send out Brent Sutter to take a big faceoff and that made Travis mad. But (Arbour) had a plan. He wanted to toughen him up.”

Green played 5½ years on the Island and his best years there. In 1997-98 he was traded to Anaheim, starting a stretch in which he moved six times in 10 years before he retired in 2007-08, a veteran of 970 NHL games.

Johnston, as it happens, had coached Green at the world championships and was in the process of building his staff in Portland. The former Canucks’ assistant wanted someone who was familiar with the WHL but was also aware former NHLers don’t always transition well to life on the buses.

Green was the exception.

“Sometimes a pro’s idea of work is a little different than the real world,” says Johnston. “It’s not like you have a 10 o’clock practice then you’re done for the day.

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“Travis was a worker. He was on the phone. He was developing plans. I thought this guy is going to be a good coach. He was into it.”

Green’s portfolio with the Winterhawks included overseeing billets that meant he was checking on teenager’s homework assignments and attendance records. He also embraced the recruiting aspect of his job and was a regular at bantam tournaments all over Western Canada.

Johnston tells a story about Green’s early years when his cellphone bill came in.

“We had the whole hockey department, then we had Travis,” says Johnston. “He had double the other guys combined. I said if that’s what you have to do then keep on doing it.”

Green remains a cellphone junkie to this day, connecting with an endless network of hockey people at all hours to discuss the game’s finer points.

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“He’s always trying to get better,” says Henning.

Johnston and Green turned around a struggling Winterhawks’ program and made the WHL Final in consecutive years. Twenty games into 2012-13, Johnston was suspended for the season for recruiting irregularities and Green took over the team, leading the Winterhawks to the Memorial Cup.

Before he was hired as the Vancouver Canucks’ head coach, Travis Green rejected an offer to become an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Photo by RICHARD LAM /PNG

The next year, the Canucks moved their AHL-affiliate to Utica, N.Y. and then-GM Mike Gillis sought to develop a young coach for the organization. Henning and former Canucks’ assistant general manager Laurence Gilman were put in charge of the search which came down to Green and Kelowna Rockets’ head coach Ryan Huska before Green was given the job.

“I had that history with Travis,” says Henning.

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Again, Green embraced his new post. Utica represented a first for the Canucks in a lot of ways and the rookie coach was demanding of both his players and his employers.

“He held our players and the organization to a high degree of accountability,” says Gilman, now the Leafs’ assistant general manager. “Some coaches who’ve played as many games in the NHL as Travis don’t roll up their sleeves. That wasn’t a problem for him.”

After a snappy 0-8-1-1 start, the Comets missed the playoffs in Green’s first year. The next year they rode goaltender Jacob Markstrom to the AHL Final. That spring Canucks’ general manger Jim Benning spent more than a month following the farm team and its head coach.

Two years later, Green was hired to replace Willie Desjardins. By then, his name was starting to surface in connection with other NHL jobs. He was interviewed by the Calgary Flames. He was close to being hired in Anaheim. Johnston offered him a position as an assistant when he was the head man in Pittsburgh.

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Green rejected the offer. He wanted to be a head coach in the NHL and he believed Utica was a better training ground than an assistant’s job in the NHL.

“It’s not a sprint for me,” Green told The Province’s Ben Kuzma in the summer of 2016. “There’s a reason I went to junior for five years and a reason I went to the AHL and have stayed as a head coach. I talk about the process a lot and I preach it.”

“He was ready,” Benning says. “When we hired him, we wanted a coach who was a good communicator, who would grow with the players and the team.”

They got that but it didn’t come cheaply for Green. He and wife Sheree have three children, daughter Jordyn and sons Blake and Brody, who’s autistic. When Green moved to Utica, the family stayed in Orange County.

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“We felt that was the best place for (Brody),” says Green.

“It wasn’t easy,” says Henning. “When he was in Utica he was flying back and forth but he was determined to make it work.”

Still is and, once again, he’s succeeding.

“You knew he was going to be a special coach,” Henning says. “He had a plan. He knew what he wanted down the road. He wanted to be an NHL coach but he knew he had to put in the work.”

When Henning had Green as a player on the Island he used to ride him about being a prima donna; a player who thought the game owed him something. Arbour told him the same thing.

The irony is, as a coach, Green has been the ultimate grinder; a details freak who prepared himself for his first NHL head coaching job by following the plan he formulated all those years ago with a single-minded purpose.

In this, the year of the bizarre playoffs, his Canucks have emerged as a rising young team and Green as one of the game’s rising coaches.

It all seems to have happened so fast. In reality it’s another case of an overnight success, 30 years in the making.

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