Look to build on last year’s success
by Than Acuff
The Crested Butte Titans hockey team is entering its second year as an official high school hockey program, coming off a fairly successful 2016-2017 season. Paced by a solid crew of seniors, last year’s team made the most of their inaugural season shaking the tree of the 5A class Colorado high school hockey league—mind you, Crested Butte is a 2A program—including an upset over perennial powerhouse Valor Christian.
They finished the regular season fourth in their division with a 10-4 record and made a run, albeit brief, in the post-season, winning their first round state tournament game 8-2 before falling in the second round to Valor Christian 4-2.
Unfortunately, last year’s team had a slew of seniors from both Crested Butte and Gunnison high schools and therefore graduation depleted the ranks, as did the loss of another player to a juniors program in Florida. The team also lost its head coach, Joey Otsuka.
The district hired Jake Johnstone as the head coach for the upcoming 2017-2018 season.
Johnstone comes with a long hockey story, having grown up playing AAA hockey in Detroit. By the age of 17 he committed to play for Division I program Michigan Tech but before lacing up the skates as a Michigan Tech Husky, he spent two years playing for the Juniors team, the Green Bay Ramblers, for coach Jon Cooper, who is currently the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He then played four years for Michigan Tech and spent some years on a variety of United States Hockey League and Southern Professional Hockey League teams from upstate New York to Pensacola, Fla. and Huntsville, Ala.
During his stint as a Junior and pro hockey player, Johnstone started coaching at power skating clinics, working alongside a host of current NHL stars. Ultimately, Johnstone switched to pursue a different career path and after some time in the Midwest, he eventually ended up here in the Gunnison Valley last year.
“I’ve been all over the place,” says Johnstone. “I always wanted to live in a Colorado mountain town but before I committed to move here, I wanted to make sure there was a hockey rink.”
He jumped into the coaching fray last season working with the West Elk Hockey Bantam program and was then tapped this fall for the u18 fall club program and the winter high school program.
Assistant coach Billy Watson remains on the coaching staff for the program from last year, offering a key perspective on the returning high school players for Johnstone.
“I’m glad Billy decided to stay on board,” says Johnstone.
Both Johnstone and Watson spent the past three weeks working with the u18 club program and getting to know the players and what Otsuka had left behind.
“Joey put in a good base with them,” says Johnstone.
Per Johnstone’s background, skating was a big part of the club team workouts to rid them of some bad habits and get players’ feet underneath them.
“Give them a month of skating and they’re right back into it,” says Johnstone.
Johnstone and Watson threw the club team into a tournament in Vail two weeks ago to see where their game sense was and Johnstone admits he was pleasantly surprised.
“After not playing in a game since last March, I was pretty impressed with what I saw in Vail,” says Johnstone. “The first game was sloppy but they got better with each game and that’s all I could ask for.”
Now, with the high school season under way, Johnstone will start switching gears, mixing in bigger-picture systems along with some of the finer aspects of the game.
“We’re continuing to coach them that hockey is a read and react sport, not playing like a robots out there,” explains Johnstone, “getting them to open their minds to the game.”
Johnstone and Watson have more than 25 kids out for the Titans program, including four goalies, and will continue to challenge the players.
“I like to mix it up,” says Johnstone. “I think that if a player is comfortable somewhere, they’re doing something wrong.”
He will also blur the lines between varsity and JV, building a complete team energy to keep everyone engaged all season long, with an emphasis on commitment.
“We’re all in this together,” says Johnstone. “I’m a new coach coming in and so I call it as I see it, no spot is guaranteed. Those who come to work every skate, show consistency, those are the ones who are going to get a shot.”
Johnstone and Watson have the team for three sessions a week, including the 6 a.m. Monday slot, during pre-season workouts building to four sessions per week once more ice opens in the valley.
The team will open the season the first weekend in December with JV and varsity games on the road, with all home games played at the Gunnison facility.
As for the season, Johnstone is aware of the strength of the high school league but looks to carry the team with a calm demeanor and make adjustments accordingly.
“I’m not a screamer or a yeller on the bench—I keep my cool,” says Johnstone. “I will just continue putting more systems in place. I can see things from the bench during the game and adjust based on seeing what the other team is bringing.”