Bakersfield, Calif. – There’s one on his desk and, as he spins around his computer chair and slides open a grey cabinet, about a dozen more appear stacked horizontally. As Jay Woodcroft flips through the pages of just one of his black notebooks, it’s clear they serve as a log of his coaching life.
The Bakersfield Condors coach jots down everything – details of hockey-related conversations with those from around the game; ideas for teaching points of instruction for practices; messages he has for his players.
It may all seem like a little much for most people, an overload of minutia that could make a head spin rather than keep it on straight. But for Woodcroft, copious note-taking keeps him on task and with a clear focus on the elements most important to becoming the absolute best coach he can be.
“When you have a record, you can always go back and reference it,” he said. “It means you’ve thought about it; you’re purposeful about it.”
Woodcroft has a lot to keep track of in his rookie season as coach of the Condors – the top minor-league affiliate for the Oilers.
The Oilers are counting on him to mould what they consider to be an improving cadre of prospects, some of which they hope will contribute to the NHL team for years to come.
Woodcroft has already overseen a brief AHL stint for tantalizing winger Jesse Puljujarvi and – with the help of assistant coach Dave Manson – finetuned Caleb Jones’s game before a December call-up. Kailer Yamamoto, Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, Ethan Bear and William Lagesson highlight the other Condors of importance for the organization.
The man the Oilers are entrusting with their most notable collection of young talent in years is a man who, until named to the post in April, had never been a head coach before.
“I put my time and work in. I had the confidence in knowing I was there for a reason, that I had something to offer,” Woodcroft said. “I have no apprehension whatsoever. I worked a very long time for that opportunity. I felt I was ready for it.”
At 42, Woodcroft is on the younger end of the spectrum by coaching standards. As he sits behind his desk in the bowels of the Condors home arena, he looks even younger than his age.
But all it takes is one look at the stack of notebooks to realize how long he’s been involved in coaching pro hockey, first on the video side for the Detroit Red Wings and then as an assistant for the San Jose Sharks and Oilers.
The pages tell a story of not only the lessons he’s learned along the way from some of the game’s great bench bosses but how he approaches his craft.
It may seem like Woodcroft fell into his first head coaching gig backwards – almost in a similar way he stumbled into the profession in the first place.
However, those who know Woodcroft call him goal-oriented and he insists his decisions are the result of careful deliberation.
The Oilers endured a miserable 2017-18 season and management, under GM Peter Chiarelli, wanted to shake things up in the form of then-coach Todd McLellan’s staff. Chiarelli suggested Woodcroft move to California to run the Condors.
Woodcroft said he had opportunities to be a head coach over the previous five years but passed each time. The familiarity with the organization and the emerging prospect pool pushed him to take the plunge.
“This opportunity felt right,” he said. “I was studying for it for 13 years.”
Woodcroft had been part of an NHL staff since 2005, jumping right from playing in the pros to teaching them.
After four years at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, Woodcroft bounced around in various now-defunct minor-pro leagues for more than four seasons before he decided it was time to make the move to Europe.
He was in Stuttgart, Germany, suiting up for the Wizards in a third-division league in 2004-05, when he received a call from Mike Babcock. Then the coach of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Babcock had an opening on his staff and Woodcroft came highly recommended. The good word came from Woodcroft’s brother Todd, who’d teamed up with Babcock to help Canada win gold at the 2004 world championship.
Babcock and Woodcroft maintained an open dialogue even as the NHL cancelled its season because of a lockout. When the work stoppage ended, Babcock summed the 28-year-old centreman to be his video coach after he was hired by Detroit.
“I felt like I was getting better and enjoying hockey and life,” Woodcroft said. “But the opportunity to work for someone like Mike and for an organization like the Detroit Red Wings trumped any delusions of grandeur with my own playing career.”
The full-time career change might have come earlier than he’d envisioned, but coaching was always part of the plan.
Woodcroft was barely a teenager when he began working for current Sharks assistant Steve Spott at the Seneca College Hockey School in Toronto.
“I’ve been a coach since I was 14 years old in that I’ve tried to pass my passion for the game onto the next generation of player,” Woodcroft said.
He was 18 when his oldest brother Craig founded Northern Edge Elite Hockey School, which led to a job teaching all over the midwestern United States in the summertime.
“That’s when I learned how to connect with younger players and boil teaching points down to the lowest common denominator,” Woodcroft said.
According to Todd, now an assistant with the Winnipeg Jets, his younger brother had already begun charting out his future by that time.
One by one, Woodcroft could check off a completed task after adding a new item to his list. Earning a college scholarship; playing professionally; getting an NHL job; winning a Stanley Cup (2008, Detroit); representing Team Canada and claiming gold (2015, worlds) – all accomplished missions.
“This is the next step in his evolution,” Todd said.
Woodcroft ran Oilers rookie camp in September before heading down to Bakersfield. It was there Malcolm Cameron, his last pro coach in North America with the Corpus Christi Rayz, got to see him run a practice for the first time.
“He was very organized,” Cameron said, now the coach of the Wichita Thunder, Edmonton’s ECHL affiliate. “He had a clear vision of what he wanted to do each day and what he wanted to accomplish on the ice. Very self-confident. That certainly shows when he’s dealing with players. He’s got a really good heart for his players, too. He wants to make those guys better.”
It’s one thing to be a video or assistant coach, but having the final say on key decisions involves a whole different level of responsibility. It’s something Woodcroft doesn’t take lightly.
“I feel alive in a whole new way. The buck stops with you,” he said.
Before taking the job, one of the first calls Woodcroft made was to Spott. Like Woodcroft, who’d spent years being mentored by McLellan, Spott has had the same type of relationship with Peter DeBoer.
Spott, however, had a chance to be the head coach of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers after DeBoer left for the NHL. He coached the AHL’s Toronto Marlies in 2013-14, too. His advice to Woodcroft was simple.
“Take what you’ve learned from a world-class coach in Todd (McLellan), but you’ve got to be your own man, have your own communication style, and trust your own instincts,” he said.
Woodcroft also spoke to coaches who had run an AHL bench on the way to taking NHL jobs. People like McLellan, Jets’ Paul Maurice and New Jersey Devils’ John Hynes advised him to be himself, to focus on his job duties and allow his staff to do their jobs.
“Those calls reaffirmed what a great decision that I had made,” he said.
It was advice he took to heart, after putting pen to paper inside his notebook.
It doesn’t a keen listening ear to hear Woodcroft’s pure enjoyment for hockey.
He remains upbeat and positive even as he’s discussing the unenviable moments of his playing career. He breaks down his players’ abilities in depth. He uses the word “fortunate” repeatedly when mentioning getting to work alongside Babcock, McLellan, DeBoer, Paul MacLean, Jon Cooper, Dave Tippett, Bill Peters and Gerald Gallant.
“One of the things that really stands out for me about Woody is just how passionate he is about the game and how he loves to teach and loves to coach,” Joe Pavelski said.
Growing up in Toronto, Woodcroft came from a hockey family. His older brothers both became coaches – Craig was an assistant on the 2018 Canadian men’s Olympic team, whereas Todd’s diverse resume includes being on Sweden’s 2016 World Cup staff.
(Woodcroft was an assistant on the North America team and jokes that he won the “Woodcroft Bowl” thanks the overtime win in the epic head-to-head matchup.)
“Coaching’s in our blood,” Woodcroft said.
The boys’ parents, Jem and Frank, loved the game, too. Jem taught them the value of grace, humility, pride and hard work. Frank was a Tier II goalie, who later suited up with two of his brothers – both Catholic priests – on the Flying Fathers, a group that played exhibition games to raise money for charities.
The family billeted Jeff Triano of the OHL’s Toronto Marlboros in the early 1980s and Jay and Todd would intently watch the team that featured future NHLers Peter Zezel and Steve Thomas.
The younger brothers had constant mini-stick battles and would keep track of points and wins.
“We played other sports, but the only sport that mattered was (hockey),” Todd said.
Woodcroft’s last season as a player in North America was like something out of the movie Slap Shot, Cameron said. By February, Cameron was hired to be the team’s third coach of the season. It was a diluted group, devoid of professionalism. Woodcroft was an exception.
“You learn more about people in tough times than when everything’s going well. Our team was terrible,” Cameron said. “It was not a great hockey situation for a player, nor a coach coming into that. I could just tell a lot about his personality.”
When asked about what kept him going, Woodcroft smiles and offers a simple response. “Every day I got to play the game professionally – and get paid to do it – it was a joy.”
His passion for the game was evident with the Red Wings as Woodcroft took an entry-level job and pushed himself to improve.
“It didn’t matter my age. It didn’t matter my pedigree or if I had played an NHL hockey game. What mattered was that I brought it every day, that I was sharp, that I was prepared,” he said.
That mindset endeared him to Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk, who called on Woodcroft in 2008 to help him run his summer hockey school for players aged 10 to 17 in Russia. Datsyuk wanted instructors who could emphasize “positive coaching” as Todd, who also assisted, explained.
Woodcroft spent two weeks of his offseason over the last decade teaching players – some of whom, like former Oiler Nail Yakupov, would go on to play in the CHL and NHL.
Datsyuk and the coaches were on the ice for at least eight hours daily. Oftentimes, days would be extended because Datsyuk’s local pals would want a tip or two. Woodcroft never minded any of it.
“He’s an Energizer Bunny. He won’t shut the machine off for 10 hours straight,” said Jeremy Clark, the Los Angeles Kings strength and conditioning coach, who was also part of the Russian group. “It’s always the first or second day when he has throat lozenges and cough syrup because his voice is completely gone. Then he goes right back out there and does it again. He’s a raspy mess by the end of the week.”
By the camp’s inaugural year, the Red Wings were fresh off a Stanley Cup championship and McLellan parlayed the title into a job as coach of the Sharks. Woodcroft joined him, moving from his video duties to an assistant on the bench for games and on the ice for practices.
“I knew in my heart of hearts that I was a coach going back to when I was 14-years-old. That’s where my passion lay,” he said. “It was a really tough decision, but one I’m happy I made.”
“You could tell how much he loved the ice time with the guys,” Pavelski added. “He was so instrumental about going on the ice early and passing me pucks.”
But Woodcroft felt he was indebted to the Red Wings for giving him his first chance.
On that first trip to Russia, Woodcroft sat in his seat writing for more than an hour before Clark finally decided he needed to investigate.
“He was writing a hand-written thank-you card to not just the coaching staff, but to every single player, equipment guy, medical guy, scout – everybody in the organization that he knew,” Clark said. “It wasn’t just a cookie-cutter (note). Legitimately, each guy was getting a different note about some experience that they had. He wrote for three or four hours.
“I’ll remember that forever because it fascinated me that he was leaving Detroit to take a better job and he spent all this time thanking every player and every coach. This is how you treat people. This is what you do.”
It was in the Detroit that Woodcroft said he learned the value of notetaking. His last act towards the organization was to show his gratitude.
In some alternate universe where – for some bizarre reason – Woodcroft didn’t pursue a career as a hockey coach, his brother Todd thinks he would have been a heck of an economics or finance university professor.
“He likes to build a business plan and see it through,” Todd said. “It’s almost like building a team.”
Clark jokes that getting Woodcroft to change a lightbulb is a challenge and he’s not the best driver either. But make no mistake, his friend is bright.
“If it comes to breaking down stuff or his mind is thinking in a complicated way, he’s unbelievably smart,” Clark said.
That best translates to the ice, where Woodcroft is regarded as a teacher and is detailed in his approach. Those skills date back to his time as a player with the Markham Waxers under Spott.
“Every player has flaws in his game, but he made up for that with his intelligence,” Spott said. “He was just one of those very, very coachable players that understood strategies and concepts and able to grasp most types of situations and carry them out onto the ice.”
By the end of his playing career, Woodcroft needed more seasoning to become a good coach. Being able to simply comprehend tactics wasn’t enough.
Woodcroft was often inquisitive of Cameron’s coaching methods. Once he got to Germany, he was always looking for advantages to be more productive.
“He liked to learn why we were doing certain things,” Cameron said. “Those types of guys usually became really good coaches.”
“We played on a line together, so we would always discuss little things we could do to create more chances,” said John Sicinski, his Stuttgart winger.
Similarly, Woodcroft said he came to understand the best players in Detroit just wanted to find ways to improve. He made that point of emphasis during video breakdowns and continued doing so as an assistant coach in San Jose.
Pavelski said he would come to him with a video package every couple of days. There would always be a positive clip and something to improve upon.
“He’s always someone you liked to talk to. He always has something for you, trying to help you improve,” Pavelski said. “That’s all you can ask for – someone you trust and someone you believe is on your side and is trying to help you out.”
That’s what Cameron noticed, too, when he arrived in Bakersfield in September to watch Condors camp.
Cameron said Woodcroft wouldn’t hesitate to stop drills and move players to different places on the ice like pieces on a chessboard.
“It’s really breaking the game down into small parts, nuances,” Woodcroft said. “We try to rehearse moments within a game so that these guys feel good when that moment occurs and so there’s muscle memory behind what they’re trying to do.”
Teaching matters to Woodcroft, especially since the Condors have had as many as six players on their roster who are 21 or younger. Fine details matter in their development.
“He’s a modern guy. He’s pretty in tune with the young guys,” his brother Todd said. “The biggest thing in coaching lately is you have to understand that the players have voices, too. They’re going to look to you for answers and you have to have answers.”
Woodcroft doesn’t have all the answers. But he sure has a lot of them in his notes.
“I’m sure if he wanted to write a book, I’m sure he’d be pretty good at it,” Todd said.
It was only two months into his first season as a head coach that Woodcroft had to endure changes within the Oilers organization when McLellan, his mentor, was fired Nov. 20.
McLellan’s replacement, Ken Hitchcock, hasn’t wanted to disrupt the situation in Bakersfield. For example, assistant coach Trent Yawney – a former San Jose colleague – handles communications with Woodcroft, just as the situation occurred under McLellan.
Aside from asking Woodcroft to switch a few buzz words for continuity’s sake, Hitchcock doesn’t want Woodcroft to change a thing.
“I don’t want to ram something down a coach’s throat. I prefer to let the way a coach coaches at the American league be his own,” said Hitchcock, noting the AHL schedule includes three games in three nights whereas the NHL’s doesn’t.
“You have to play a different game than you would if you were playing in the NHL. There’s times when you’ve gotta get points when you’re playing at 70 percent or 60 percent whether it’s based on personnel or level of energy. I like to leave the coach alone on the way we want them to play.”
Hitchcock has seen four players – Puljujarvi, Jones, Marody and Patrick Russell – that have worked with Woodcroft in Bakersfield this season.
While developing players for the big club is important, doing so in a winning environment matters to Woodcroft.
The Condors are 14-10 and fourth place in the AHL’s Pacific Division but are within striking distance of the Colorado Eagles and Tucson Roadrunners. They play in Colorado on Friday and Saturday, their final games before their holiday break.
Woodcroft believes winning habits can be learned and are as important as passing, shooting or checking.
Leafing through the notebook on his desk, he finds the message he had for his players on the opening meeting of camp.
“My job, and our job as coaches, is to help each player reach their potential and advance them on in their career. That’s our success as coaches. But that goes hand-in-hand with winning – because everybody wants winners.”
The message was something he picked up along the way and something he takes to heart.
“That’s when you get better, when you commit to life-long learning and ask people that are successful about their experiences and try to learn from their experiences as well as their own,” Woodcroft said.
Woodcroft knows this because he wrote it down for safekeeping, of course.
(Top photo: Mark Nessia/Bakersfield Condors)