In the time that Jay Woodcroft has been the Edmonton Oilers head coach, we’ve learned quite a bit about him as both a coach and a person. Of course, Woodcroft has led the team to its best results in the cap era. Although there have been uneasy moments along the way, the Oilers ascension from underperforming wild card hopeful to perennial contender is undeniable. The in-game effects have been pleasant.
Equally pleasant is Woodcroft’s demeanour outside game situations. Willing to work with media members instead of against them, Woodcroft is gracious with his time. He is willing to explain his thought process, general concepts of the game the way he sees them, and maintains a positive and constructive outlook even in tough moments. Although fans may have specific gripes about certain deployment decisions, it must be said that Woodcroft is able to operate in a manner that is becoming of the foremost public face of the team.
Despite his willingness to share on a daily basis, an interview released on March 16 on the popular 32 Thoughts podcast gives us a chance at a deeper, more general conversation with the coach. As usual, the 32 Thoughts podcast is entertaining and worth a listen on its own, but we will break down the gist of the conversation here, adding in some thoughts and extrapolations of our own.
Woodcroft lives in the moment
One of the themes that stands out in the interview that directly applies to this season’s Oilers is Woodcroft’s ability to stay in the present. Many Oilers’ fans would expect the team to make the playoffs, perhaps looking over the long and arduous journey to get there. In the most extreme cases some might suggest the Oilers are somewhat bored with any regular season success. In particular, top players Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl seem content to brush aside any individual milestones, instead remaining steadfast in their seriousness.
Woodcroft, however, keeps the focus on the here and now. He went out of his way to discuss how important it is to appreciate the greatness of McDavid instead of becoming numb to it. He emphasised his willingness to embrace the journey, maximising the moments on the path to “game 83”–the first game of the playoffs. This process driven stoicism is common throughout athletics, a realm in which form, quality, results, and legacy are built and challenged each day, one at a time, one after another.
Destined to be a coach
Podcast hosts Jeff Marek and Elliot Friedman brought up that many of the people who knew Woodcroft at a young age were not surprised by his becoming a coach. It is clear to see that Woodcroft is all in, driven by an internal fire of passion and work ethic. This driving force was honed and displayed from a young age, with Woodcroft being a detailed student of the game as a child, working in hockey camps since his early teens, going to Europe to pursue a playing career, all before retiring as a player at 28 to pursue coaching.
Along the way Woodcroft has had the chance to learn from several prolific coaches, an obvious resource being the Detroit Red Wings staff he joined in the 2005–06 season. That staff had Mike Babcock, Todd McLellan, and Paul MacLean, all of whom have held NHL head coaching positions.
More impressive is Woodcroft’s understanding that knowledge can come from many sources. Though he credits the coaching staff quite a bit, claiming his time with the Red Wings as a sort of university equivalence in coaching, he mentions too how the players themselves are able to offer insights for those willing to listen.
At the time, in his late 20s, Woodcroft would have been younger than many of the legendary players on the Red Wings. In particular he mentions the leadership of now GM Steve Yzerman was particularly inspiring, not to mention the work ethic of all the great players he has coached in the NHL throughout the years. From the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk in Detroit, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau during his tenure in San Jose, not to mention McDavid and Draisaitl here in Edmonton, Woodcroft has been a first hand witness to some of the highest level players.
Woodcroft mentions how these top players are eager to learn, to be coached, and to seek any additional edge in their pursuit of greatness. It is this desire to succeed that forged their talents in the first place. Though they seek knowledge and instruction, Woodcroft does the same in return.
It is in this collaboration and respect that Woodcroft achieves results. He does not coach against circumstance, rather with it. He keeps video sessions short and succinct. Ultimately we see this attitude in how Woodcroft carries himself publicly, particularly in media availability. He allows the players to walk their own paths to improvement, enabling their desire to achieve, rather than forcing them into his own directions.
This lack of ego in his work has allowed Woodcroft to win over his team, to increase the effectiveness of his messaging, and ultimately to achieve the strong results that he has.
He has some sway in the organisation
An anecdote that was mentioned, albeit vaguely, was a conversation between Woodcroft and Oilers GM Ken Holland. Holland, at some point in the last season, was exploring the idea of making an addition to the team. Woodcroft was consulted, the coach ultimately convincing his GM that the Oilers had an internal solution worth exploring, a point that ultimately led to Holland deferring to his head coach, not making the trade.
That trust has been earned over many years, as Holland was GM for the Red Wings when Woodcroft got his first NHL coaching job. The knowledge was gained during Woodcroft’s time as the head coach of the Oilers AHL affiliate Bakersfield Condors, where an intimate understanding of the organisation’s younger personnel allowed familiarity and trust between Woodcroft and his players.
This level of respect and trust is appreciated, but not always present, even at the NHL level. Woodcroft has done well in fostering that relationship with his GM as well as his players, a telltale sign of his wholehearted commitment and passion.
The Oilers continue to improve under Woodcroft
Woodcroft was careful not to reveal all of his secrets, but did offer some insights to the Oilers specifically. Upon taking over the team he targeted areas that he felt needed to improve, a foundational compass for his players to adopt.
Having clear instructions, guidelines for players to follow is crucial to team cohesion. Naturally, high levels of work ethic and physicality are bound to be talking points for every team in every sport.
Woodcroft’s outline involves defending the middle of the ice, but specific changes were made to address the Oilers issues in defending at the time of his hiring. Defending the neutral zone was a big key, particularly with how forwards applied back pressure. Woodcroft was keen to see the Oilers defend their zone more aggressively, using the blueline as a point to pressure opponents, attempting to deny entries at a higher level.
Beyond that Woodcroft spoke on the personalities of McDavid and Draisaitl. Both are expectedly driven, beyond that of most NHLers. Draisaitl is the son of a coach and has internalised discipline in this regard. Woodcroft noted that McDavid has been blossoming as a leader, showing a greater understanding and willingness to take charge of the group in constructive ways.
This is only a piece of the continued evolution of the game’s best player. Yes, McDavid’s goal scoring has soared to a new level, and clearly his effectiveness as a leader has as well. McDavid’s defensive game continues to improve as well, with increased effectiveness at 5v5 and a regular role on the penalty kill. No doubt his desire to improve is critical to this growth, as McDavid will surely add different major awards to his trophy case.
Woodcroft understands his role beyond the bench
Another key takeaway from Woodcroft’s description of his promotion is his understanding of his role beyond the bench. Yes, Woodcroft did well in identifying the areas the Oilers needed to improve and how to go about them. He was also wise to check in with the remaining staff on the realities of the situation, taking a heat check on whatever questions he had coming into the job. Finally, he understood that there was more to the job of NHL head coach than the players themselves, that he is a key piece of informing the market itself.
Woodcroft tells us with his actions that he takes this part of the job seriously, but in his words he expressed an understanding that part of his role is to communicate to people outside of the locker room as well. Moreover, Woodcroft noted that in his introductory press conference he wanted to outline his vision to the fans.
This willingness to share mirrors his willingness to learn, an openness to all involved, and a wisdom that reaches beyond sport and into life itself. It can be near impossible to keep everyone happy, but it is clear that Woodcroft understands that the best way to operate is with honesty, openness, integrity, and respect. He understands that giving his best, to his bosses, to fellow coaches, to his players, to fans, is the most effective way of getting the best from them.
It is in his spirit that we too can learn from Woodcroft. Despite the fact that most of us are not hockey coaches or hockey players, the lessons here are applicable to every facet of life. Woodcroft is all in, and is guided by his passion, work ethic, and humility.
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire