Jay Woodcroft, no longer interim head coach, prepares to lead Oilers to ‘something special’

Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl says he's excited to get the 2022-2023 NHL season underway and talks about how the Oilers will be looking to build upon their success from last season.

PENTICTON, B.C. — Jay Woodcroft is the father of eight-year-old twin daughters who are embarking on life as the kids of the local hockey team’s head coach, never an easy spot in a Canadian market. He’s had the conversation with them.

As a coach, he has a hockey team that broke through its glass ceiling last spring — but one that had better not think that the season starts in April or May. Woodcroft has had that conversation too, likely more than once.

“Ease, or comfort, is the greatest enemy of progress,” he says, attributing the quote to a book he read last winter. “We’re proud of what happened last year — we’re not going to run from that. But nobody is satisfied with just making it to the third round.

“While we’re optimistic, heading into training camp here we join 31 other teams that feel the exact same way.”

It is fair to say we have a book on the head coach in Calgary, or in Vancouver or Winnipeg because Darryl Sutter has shown himself over 1,397 games as a head coach. Bruce Boudreau has coached 1,042 games, and Rick Bowness has been behind benches longer than both, though often as an associate or assistant coach.

Woodcroft has served his time, starting out as a video coach in Detroit. Today, at age 46, he is roughly 20 years younger than those other aforementioned coaches, but ready to begin building his own NHL resume.

“You talked about preparation and opportunity?” he reminds the interviewer. “Last year when I received that phone call (to coach the Oilers), that was my 17th year in professional coaching. Nothing was given along the way.”

So, who exactly is Woodcroft, the no-longer-interim coach of an Edmonton Oilers team that is deep, has shored up its goaltending, and has the NHL’s two most productive players over the last six seasons?

Well, he’s a bit of a moving target. That’s what Jay Woodcroft is.

He is loathe to take credit for what happened last season, but will tell you that even the best NHL player needs (and wants) leadership, and he is ready to provide.

“Where we’re at in the life stage of our team, we have a mature group, we have a hungry group,” he said, sipping a black coffee on a warm Penticton morning. “We have a group that tasted a little bit of what it takes to go on a long run in the playoffs, and we have great people. I think that’s our competitive advantage and the greatest asset that we have as an organization: our human capital.

“People who want to be part of something bigger than just themselves. Part of something special.”

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Taking over for the fired Dave Tippett last February, Woodcroft put the Oilers back on the rails. They had some speed wobbles in Round 1 against Los Angeles, but freight-trained the Calgary Flames in Round 2.

It is now September, however, and Woodcroft’s Oilers still don’t have win No. 1 over their third-round opponent, the Colorado Avalanche.

“In the end it came down to moments,” he said of that Western Conference Final sweep. “Three of the four games were one-goal games late. It’s a 2-2 hockey game (in Game 3), we hit the post at the end of the powerplay where we had numerous chances, then it goes the other way and they score. That’s hockey. That’s one of those moments. And it seemed like in the previous two series, we were the team on the other side of that.

“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned, we’ve studied that, and we’re going to find things as we move forward.”

Oh, you know he has studied.

Woodcroft is an analyst in every fibre of his being, a trait he gets from his mother, Jem. She was a nurse whose father Eric Cradock co-founded the original Montreal Alouettes, once shared ownership of the Toronto Argonauts with John Bassett, and also founded the short-lived Toronto Huskies of the Basketball Association of America.

“She instilled the work ethic in the three (Woodcroft) boys,” he said. “She was the rock of our family. She was in her late 60s when she passed away. She battled cancer.”

Woodcroft knows himself well enough that he will not summer in the city where his hockey team resides. He’d be at the rink working for too much of the summer. So he and his wife bought a lake place “14 or 15 years ago.”

We might call that “enforced chilling out,” but as always, Woodcroft has analyzed the situation far deeper than that.

“You’re buying a cottage, but you’re buying a mindset. And your mindset is that this is your time. This is your happy place. This is where you go to refresh and renew and recharge your batteries,” he said.

Trying and pin him down on his lineup configuration is like trying to get the body on Patrick Kane. He spins off, and gets you going another direction.

“Will you stack your Top 6? Or play Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as your third-line centre?” he is asked.

His answer? He’ll be ready to do either.

“When you do that you make for a tough opponent. You’re not easy to read. You’re not predictable,” Woodcroft said. “We’ve got a lot of good hockey players, and I think maintaining a level of flexibility and not being beholden or prisoner to something that was decided beforehand, that’s one of our one of our advantages.”

Since John Muckler coached these Oilers to a Stanley Cup in 1990, many men have tried and failed at the task.

Cue Jay Woodcroft, who may have the horses, the process, and the instincts to get it done.

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