PENTICTON, BC – Jay Woodcroft is a father of eight-year-old twin daughters who embarked on life as the children of the head coach of the local hockey team, which isn’t an easy niche in the Canadian market. I had a conversation with them.
As a coach, he has a hockey team that broke its glass ceiling last spring – but he’d better not think the season starts in April or May. Woodcroft has had this conversation as well, probably more than once.
“Ease, or convenience, is the greatest enemy of progress,” he says, attributing the quote to a book he read last winter. “We are proud of what happened last year – we are not going to run from that. But no one is satisfied with just making it to the third round.
“While we’re optimistic, heading into training camp here, we’re joining 31 other teams who are feeling the same way.”
It’s fair to say we have a head coach book in Calgary or Vancouver or Winnipeg because Daryl Sutter has shown himself in over 1,397 games as a head coach. Bruce Boudreaux has coached 1,042 games, and Rick Bowness has been behind benches longer than both, although he is often an assistant or assistant coach.
Woodcroft has taken his time, starting out as a video coach in Detroit. Today, at 46, he is about 20 years younger than the other coaches mentioned above, but he is ready to start building his NHL resume.
“Have you talked about readiness and opportunity?” Mention the interlocutor. “Last year when I got that phone call (to coach the Oilers), it was my 17th year in professional training. Nothing was given along the way.”
So, who exactly is Woodcroft, the no longer provisional coach for the deep Edmonton Oilers, has cemented his target, and has the most productive NHL players of the past six seasons?
Well, it’s a slightly moving target. That’s what Jay Woodcroft is.
He hates taking credit for what happened last season, but he will tell you that even the best player in the NHL needs (and wants) leadership, and he’s ready to give it.
“In our team life stage, we have a mature group, we have a hungry group,” he said, sipping black coffee on a warm Penticton morning. “We have a group that has tasted a bit of what it takes to get through the playoffs, and we have great people. I think that is our competitive advantage and the greatest asset we have as an organization: our human capital.
“People who want to be part of something bigger than just themselves. Part of something special.”
Woodcroft took over fired Dave Tippett last February, and put the Oilers back on the rails. They had some wiggles in pace in the first round against Los Angeles, but they coached the Calgary Flames in the second round.
However, it’s now September, and Woodcroft’s Oilers still don’t take the top spot over their third-round rival, the Colorado Avalanche.
“In the end, it ended up being moments,” he said of the Final Sweep of the Western Conference. “Three of the four games are one goal behind. It’s a 2-2 hockey game (in Game 3), we hit the post at the end of a strong play where we had a lot of chances, and then things went the other way. The result, that’s hockey, that’s one of those Moments, and it seemed like in the previous two series, we were the team on the other side of that.
“There are a lot of lessons to be learned, we have studied that, and we will find things as we go forward.”
Oh, you know it’s a lesson.
Woodcroft is an analyst in every part of his being, a trait he gets from his mother Jim. She was a nurse whose father Eric Craddock co-founded the original Montreal Alois, once co-owned the Toronto Argonauts with John Bassett, and also founded the short-lived Toronto Huskies in the NBA.
“I instilled a work ethic in the three boys (Woodcroft),” he said. “She was the rock of our family. She was in her late 60s when she passed away. She battled cancer.”
Woodcroft knows himself so well that he wouldn’t spend the summer in the city where his hockey team resides. He will be at the rink running for a long time in the summer. So he and his wife bought a place on the lake “14 or 15 years ago.”
We might call that “compulsively scary,” but as always, Woodcroft analyzed the situation much deeper than that.
“You buy a hut, but you buy a mindset. And your mindset is that this is your time. This is your happy place. This is where you go to refresh, renew and recharge your batteries,” he said.
Trying to pin him down on his lineup formation is like trying to get the body on Patrick Kane. It spins, and leads you in another direction.
“Will you bring together your top 6 players? Or play Ryan Nugent Hopkins as the third line center?” asked.
his answer? He would be willing to do either of them.
“When you do that you make a difficult opponent,” Woodcroft said. “You are not easy to read. You are unpredictable.” “We have a lot of good hockey players, and I think maintaining a level of flexibility and not being beholden to or a prisoner of something that was predetermined, that’s one of our advantages.”
Since John Mackler coached these outliers for the Stanley Cup in 1990, many guys have tried and failed at the job.
Cue Jay Woodcroft, who might have the horses, process, and instincts to get it done.