Woodcroft takes off to Vermont

Parting is definitely sweet sorrow for Todd Woodcroft, who says the past four years as an assistant coach with the Winnipeg Jets have been the highlight of his two-decade National Hockey League career.

But a chance to run his own bench — with the blessing and encouragement of good friend and mentor, Jets head coach Paul Maurice — was behind a decision to leave it all behind and take over the University of Vermont men’s hockey program.

“Paul gave me more than I ever deserved. This guy’s the best. I would take a bullet in the face for that man, that’s how strong I feel about Paul. For me to leave that safety, that was not easy,” Woodcroft, 47, told the Free Press during a phone interview on Thursday.

All of this came together quickly. Kevin Sneddon retired as head coach of the Vermont Catamounts following a dreadful 2-18-4 season, creating an opening. A friend who works in NCAA Division 1 suggested Woodcroft take a run at the position. Woodcroft had a heart-to-heart conversation with Maurice, who convinced him to go for it. And Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff granted permission for the school’s athletic director to interview Woodcroft.

“The only counsel I would ever need is the man who has the most profound impact on my life, and that’s Paul. Just to hear him and listen to him and advise me that ‘You’re good enough for this, you can do this’ was enough,” said Woodcroft.

“I think any coach would tell you they want to be a head coach. That’s the juice. You want to test yourself to see if you’re any good.”

All of these conversations, including the job interview, happened through video conference calls late last week due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The formal announcement of Woodcroft’s hiring came Wednesday evening.

“You pride yourself on being a guy that can go shake someone’s hand and they get a feel for you. By the end of this I wanted to throw my computer out the window,” he joked.

Woodcroft held his first team meeting on Thursday, speaking to players for the first time on Zoom. They’ve all been through a lot lately, with the abrupt end to their season, departure of their coach, remote learning due to coronavirus and all kinds of uncertainty about when life might go back to normal.

“These guys are young guys, some of them can’t even make an omelette,” said Woodcroft.

“There’s so much stuff going in on these guys’ lives that is more important than hockey. I told them I don’t care about the hockey side yet, I care about you guys, how it’s going, what do you need, that sort of thing.”

He faces a big challenge in getting the Catamounts, who are based about 150 kilometres south of Montreal in Burlington, back to their previous winning ways.

“It’s a great spot. The program is in the toughest division in college hockey (Hockey East). That’s the hard part, but that’s the part you relish. Now I’m going to take all the things I’ve learned from Paul and Jamie (Kompon, Jets associate coach) and Charlie (Huddy, Jets assistant coach) and Wade (Flaherty, Jets assistant coach). I’m the sum of all those guys, and I’m proud of it,” he said.

Woodcroft can also lean on his older brother, Craig, who is the bench boss of Dinamo Minsk in the KHL, and younger brother, Jay, who runs the show with the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors.

Woodcroft was hired as the Minnesota Wild’s video coach in 2000, then moved into a scouting role with both the Wild and Washington Capitals in 2006. The native of Toronto joined the Los Angeles Kings in a similar role in 2009 and was part of their 2012 Stanley Cup championship. He took on the role of scouting director for the Calgary Flames in 2013 and spent three seasons before joining the Jets in 2016 as an assistant to Maurice.

But nothing will compare to the run to the Western Conference final in the spring of 2018, or even this year’s topsy-turvy season, which involved the Jets dealing with all kinds of obstacles and adversity yet still being in a playoff spot at the time of the pause.

“Ken Burns could do a documentary on the stuff that happened this year,” said Woodcroft.

“But the leadership of Chevy and Paul, solving problems and making them so they were never going to be an excuse. There was never an excuse that we were gonna accept things because X happened. And then at the end of the day it was in the players’ hands.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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