Mike Williamson is no stranger to the Toyota Center. As a former coach of the Portland Winterhawks, he endured the Tri-City Americans fans pounding on drums behind the visiting bench. He experienced his share of wins and losses, and has seen both teams go through the success and hardships of the Western Hockey League.
Tuesday, Williamson, 41, was named the 20th coach of the Americans, replacing Jim Hiller, who was fired Friday after five years behind the bench.
“This has all happened pretty quick,” said Williamson, who coached the Calgary Hitmen the last five years before being fired in April. “This has been a whirlwind the last couple of days. I am very excited about the opportunity. I want to thank Bob (Tory) and the rest of the ownership group, trusting me with this challenge.
“My family and I are extremely excited to get back the U.S. Division. I spent a number of years in Portland as a player and a coach. I met my wife (Michelle) there and started our family (daughter Leeah and son Nicholas). To have the opportunity to continue to coach in a very competitive division and closer to our roots is an awesome thing for us. I am excited to get to work.”
When Hiller was fired, Tory already had a plan in place.
“A lot of thought went into making the change,” Tory said. “I learned a long time ago working for Ed Chynoweth that you need to have your ducks in a row. Before you make one move you have your mind made up where you are going. I was looking for a particular person to come in and do the job. It was a no-brainer on my part when Mike was available. Nothing against Jim, he did a good job coming in behind Don Nachbaur, but I felt a change was needed for where our team was going in the long term.
“Mike was a competitive player, a character player when he played. He has had success as a coach in the WHL. He is the next coach in the WHL closing in on 500 wins. Having that type experience behind the bench is so important, particularly in this division, where it is so tough and the quality of coaching is so good.”
The Americans signed Williamson to a multi-year contract Tuesday, reuniting the former WHL player with Tory, who helped bring him into the league in 1991.
“I’ve know him for quite some time,” Tory said. “I met him as a 17-year-old hockey player playing at Red Deer College. We recruited him to come play for the Portland Winterhawks. It didn’t take long for him to become captain of that team and helped that team rebuild under Ken Hodge and Brent Peterson and win a Western Conference championship.”
When Tory became general manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds and hired Don Nachbaur as coach 1994, he wanted to bring Williamson in as an assistant coach, but the Winterhawks beat him to it.
“Ken Hodge was too smart for me at that time and made sure he hired him as an assistant coach,” Tory said. “Mike worked with Ken and Brent and they went on to win a Memorial Cup. When Brent went on to the pros, Mike started his head coaching career.”
Williamson, a native of Wetaskiwin, Alberta, spent 15 years with Portland as a player and coach. Portland hit rock bottom in the WHL during the 2006-07 season and Williamson was let go.
Williamson got back into coaching in 2009 with Calgary. During the 2010 playoffs, the Hitmen defeated the Americans for the WHL title and advanced to the Memorial Cup.
This season, the Hitmen finished tied atop the Eastern Conference with the Edmonton Oil Kings with 103 points. Calgary took an early exit from the playoffs with a first-round loss to the Kootenay Ice.
Williamson has coached 888 WHL games with a overall record of 427-374-36-20 with 31 ties. He also has 105 playoff games to his credit with a 54-51 record.
“For me, there were a couple things,” Tory said of choosing Williamson. “Character, passion, commitment and work ethic were so, so important in finding our next head coach. I know Mike brings all of those things. The leadership he will provide to our players. I know he will be firm, but fair. We think we are heading back to the direction we were in. We want to bring our team to the level we are known for. A team that works hard, is relentless and gives everything they have and is one of the top conditioned teams in the league.”
A quick look at the roster gave Williamson an idea of the team’s returning players, including goalie Eric Comrie and defenseman Justin Hamonic.
“It will take time to get to know the roster and the ins and outs so I can put a stamp on things and decide what systems that will be best suited,” Williamson said. “There is a very strong foundation. You try to building your team around solid goaltending and good defensemen. We have that coming back. There are high expectations. I’m looking forward to getting started and getting to work. There is a passionate fan base, for sure. You could always feel that when you came in the building. I am looking forward to getting on the home side of things.”