Chris and Carson Johnstone take over behind the bench for the Pelham Panthers
BY BILL POTRECZ
When Chris Johnstone received a call on his cellphone last week and looked at who was on the other end, he knew something was up.
Calling was Pelham Panthers owner Tim Toffolo, and Johnstone correctly figured he wasn’t reaching out to discuss the weather.
The Panthers and Mark Barrick had just mutually parted ways and Toffolo was inquiring if Johnstone would be interested in taking over as head coach.
“When Tim called, it breathed so much life into me because of where this program is headed and this [arena] rivals OHL buildings,” said Johnstone, who last coached at the junior B level with the St. Catharines Falcons two years ago. “For me to come back, it’s arguably one of the best situations for me.”
Johnstone was ready to take over, but he had one caveat — he wanted to bring along his son, Carson, who was in his first season as an assistant with the Fort Erie Meteors.
“It was a no-brainer. The only problem I had was if I was going be able to get [Carson] out of Fort Erie or not,” Johnstone said.
Johnstone told Toffolo to sit tight for an hour while he talked to Carson — it ended up being a three-hour wait — before the details were worked out.
Carson, who played for his dad with the Meteors, admitted it took some soul searching before making the decision to join his father.
“It was really bittersweet,” he said. “The biggest problem was an ethical and moral dilemma kind of thing versus an emotional thing of what I wanted to do.
“Obviously, who doesn’t want to coach with their dad? Not too many guys get that opportunity. When my dad called me, my initial thought was how to make this happen. The other side was, I can’t leave these kids. I’ve made relationships and made a commitment, but at the same time, I have more opportunity here.”
Chris Johnstone said he couldn’t envision taking the job without Carson.
“When this came up, for argument’s sake, I wanted to snatch my son back,” he said candidly. “It’s on me. I made the call. He was nervous about it. He was committed to Fort Erie and the organization.
“He’s a Fort Erie guy, he had great years there, so that was a tough one, but I was selfish. I wanted my son. He wavered at first and I know I put him in an uncomfortable spot.”
Toffolo, too, was excited the get both father and son.
“I think what really intrigued me — I’ve know Chris a long time and we’ve talked about coaching and the timing was never right —but knowing Chris was going to come with Carson was pretty big,” Toffolo said. “I think it gives you the best of both worlds, and I think that’s what Chris and Carson bring.”
Chris said Carson will be more than just an assistant.
“He’s going to do everything and I’m going to watch,” he joked.
“I’ve been so impressed already. We’ve had a lot of work to do and some late nights to get these things pieced back together. He’s got a pile of responsibility and he’s impressed me to no end.”
Chris kept his hand in coaching last season at the peewee AA level in his hometown of Niagara Falls, and admits he’s not quite the same fiery bench boss he has been in the past.
“You have to encourage,” he said. “I’ll be demanding —I had a tad of a moment at practice last night — but we’re going to be supportive and make them feel as best as they can for the effort they give us and we’ll give them every ounce of us. That’s just how we do things.
“The young, exuberant, excitable fellow is gone. I learned a lot dealing with the new breed of hockey player. You can’t do it. You have to have poise. You have to teach and tell players why you are teaching this.”
He feels Carson can help him in that area.
“His communications skills with these kids are second to none.”
Johnstone is stepping into a delicate situation with the Panthers, who were off to a slow start under Barrick amid rumours of problems in the locker room.
“Mark and I have a great relationship and I respect Mark so, so much for realizing what had to be done because I wouldn’t have,” Toffolo said. “My heart was in one spot so when I look at the individual in Mark Barrick, I just can’t say enough about his integrity and his honesty and the man himself. Mark and I made the decision to do the best thing for the hockey team together, as we’ve done everything else. We made a mutual decision.”
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