On July 17, Assistant Coach Jay Woodcroft boarded a plane for Germany. After a 12-hour flight, he landed in Frankfurt, where he had a four-hour layover before getting back on a plane for Ekateringburg, Russia. Five hours later, he finally arrived.
Woodcroft wasn’t headed for a summer vacation destination. He traveled halfway around the world to work at a youth hockey camp.
Alongside a North American contingent of eight coaches -- including his brother, Todd, the European Scout for the Los Angeles Kings, Pierre Groulx of the Montreal Canadiens and Jeremy Clark of Minnesota Top Team Strength Training -- Woodcroft spent two weeks as the Head Instructor at the Pavel Datsyuk PD13 Hockey School in Ekateringburg.
“It was a great experience and proved that the game of hockey has no barriers,” Woodcroft said in an exclusive interview with SJSHARKS.com.
Over the last two weeks of July, Woodcroft taught advanced skating, passing and shooting techniques to Russian hockey players aged 10-18. More than 100 kids were taught passing and shooting techniques, body contact, positional play and game theory. Each group of players had four hours of on-ice instruction as well as National Hockey League-type video/classroom instruction and a specifically tailored NHL-caliber off-ice workout.
Outside of teaching the students, Woodcroft and his team also put on a Coaching Seminar attended by 25 youth coaches.
Players and coaches from all over Russia attended the camp -- coming as far away as Moscow, Novosibirsk and Ufa. Some of them lacked the proper equipment, some didn’t have the money to travel to the hockey school and others couldn’t afford the small enrollment cost. But with financial support from the camp’s founder, Detroit center Datsyuk and sponsorship from RBK, all the costs were subsidized.
The elite hockey school was built around Datsyuk’s dream of having North American coaches teach their style of hockey to Russian youth. Over those two weeks, the coaches spent 80 hours on the ice with the students focusing on the importance of a positive work environment.
Their goal was to allow these kids to make mistakes, but at the same time, provide encouragement and positive coaching to correct those mistakes.
“Our philosophy is that when the players are having fun and when they’re working in a positive environment, they get better and they can do things they couldn’t do before,” Woodcroft said. “And when they can do things that they couldn’t do before, they love the game because they can perform at a higher level.”
Developing this positive environment was one of the hardest challenges the coaches faced. Changing their student’s on-ice culture required patience and trust. They needed to encourage their players to get out of their comfort zones and learn these new techniques, but remain positive if they weren’t immediately successful.
Communication was another barrier Woodcroft and the coaches had to overcome. Translators assisted the instructors, but the NHL coaches had to learn how to boil down their teaching to the lowest common denominator in order to get their point across. They weren’t dealing with professional athletes. They were dealing with teenagers.
“When we communicated with the kids we did so with a translator,” Woodcroft said. “But hockey’s hockey. And when you’re teaching young players you’re forced to eliminate any clutter to make it as simple as possible. And that’s a great lesson for coaches.”
This was the second time Woodcroft had volunteered at the elite hockey school. In July of 2008, he participated in the inaugural camp and the 33-year-old said he’s looking forward to doing it again next year.
“It was a very, very refreshing thing to go half way around the world and to see kids and young players who loved the game and that were excited about learning,” Woodcroft said. “Essentially that’s why you do it; to pass on your passion for the game.”
Growing up in Toronto, Woodcroft attended camps like this as a kid and credits hockey for shaping him as a young man. He still recalls his instructors putting him through drills that taught him about teamwork, commitment and perseverance. Those skills earned him a full scholarship with the University of Alabama-Huntsville where he played four seasons, was an Academic All-American and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in finance.
After his graduation, Woodcroft played minor league hockey for six years. His North American professional experience included time with the Corpus Christi Rayz (Central Hockey League), Flint Generals (United Hockey League), Anchorage Aces (West Coast Hockey League), Missouri River Otters (UHL) and Jackson Bandits (ECHL). He also spent 2004-05 in Germany playing for the Stuttgart Wizards.
Now Woodcroft has come full circle: professionally coaching the game he learned as a kid. In four years in the NHL, he has been a part of coaching staffs that have collected three President's Trophies and one Stanley Cup Championship. As a Sharks Assistant Coach, Woodcroft plays a pivotal role in pre-scouting the opposition, helping the centermen on their faceoff techniques, working alongside Trent Yawney developing penalty kill schemes, as well as working closely with Head Coach Todd McLellan on specific in-game situations and game strategy.
And even as a coach, he’s still learning from his peers and his players.
“Todd has a great saying: ‘Hockey is a simple game, played by simple people and coached by even simpler people. So keep it simple’,” Woodcroft said. “And I whole heartedly believe in that. When you go halfway around the world and you’re dealing with people in a different language, you’re forced to keep things simple and sometimes that’s the best way to go about it.”