New Sharks Assistant Coach Jay Woodcroft did a fine job of creating a professional hockey career for himself as a player, albeit never at the NHL level. Instead of cities like Toronto, San Jose or New York, he made homes in Corpus Christi, Jackson and Flint.
However, Woodcroft is living proof that there is more than one way to cross the finish line.
“I was a minor league hockey player who never played in the NHL,” said Woodcroft. “My dream was to get to the NHL and three years ago I got there. I loved my career in the minors and made great friends, but I always wanted to get to the highest level.”
He may not have had NHL skills, but he obviously has NHL smarts, having graduated summa cum laude from the University of Alabama-Huntsville. He was an important cog for the Chargers Division I hockey program.
When Woodcroft finished his professional playing days, he was able to land a job as the video coach for the Detroit Red Wings. Aside from the cool fact that his bio sat next to the legendary Scotty Bowman in the Red Wings media guide, Woodcroft earned a Stanley Cup ring, something many NHL players never accomplish in 10 years of skating in the league.
“Getting to the NHL changed my life,” said Woodcroft. “I count my blessings that I’m working in hockey at the highest level.”
Woodcroft’s championship in Detroit did not come in year one and there are some similarities between what he experienced and what the Sharks have in recent years.
“The championship didn’t happen overnight,” said Woodcroft. “We had good teams three years in a row. We suffered a first round loss to Edmonton. Then we went a little further and lost a tough six-game series to Anaheim. It was a great feeling the third year.”
Woodcroft was simply a video coach in Detroit, but he will take on an official assistant coaching role with the Sharks.
“It was a very inclusive staff in Detroit with some really good hockey minds,” said Woodcroft. “I felt every day I went to work I would learn. I can’t wait to get started (here). I feel very fortunate to be included on this staff.”
From Cup winner to Cup contender, it is still surprising that the Canadian product got his NHL goal rolling by playing collegiately south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
“Especially for a guy who grew up in Toronto, probably the premier hockey market,” noted Woodcroft. “I don’t think you could find two more different places than Toronto and Huntsville. Toronto is the economic, financial and cultural center of Canada and I went to the Deep South. I met a lot of nice people there.”
As for his best experience on his well traveled pro career, Woodcroft says that would be another world apart from Canada or Alabama.
“I would say my best experience playing and personally was in Europe,” said Woodcroft. “In Germany, I played in a town called Stuttgart and it was the Motor City of the country. It was a beautiful city and my wife and I grew up so much culturally. The ice hockey was very underrated. There was a lot of pressure on import players to perform and I think I had my best year there as a pro.”
The true beginning of his success would go back to his roots in Canada though and a family that produced a trio of boys who all earn paychecks in the sport they love.
“I grew up one of three boys and we all make our living from the game,” said Woodcroft. “My oldest brother operates the hockey school we started and my other brother worked for the Wild and now the Capitals. Our parents were very supportive. We are a true hockey family in every sense.”
And now Woodcroft has another hockey family in San Jose, which 20 years ago might have sounded just as odd to the hockey world as Huntsville.
CUP PLANS Like Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan, who will have the Stanley Cup in mid August, Woodcroft will get some time with hockey’s Holy Grail as well. That will occur on August 29 when he brings the Cup back to Toronto.
“I’ll be flying back to Toronto on August 29 for my day with the Cup,” said Woodcroft.
While it’s the accumulation of his professional life, Woodcroft is not going crazy with the plans.
“It will be laid back, in my family’s fashion,” said Woodcroft. “I want to bring it back to my old neighborhood in the center of Toronto. We’re not telling people we're coming (to specific places), we’re just doing it. I’ll schedule something with my old team and take pictures there. A good friend has offered to have a nice barbeque, but it will be pretty subdued.”