Minutes after the Oilers beat the Flames in Calgary on Thursday night, Jay Woodcroft stood at a podium before an assembly of journalists. It was Edmonton’s greatest moment in 16 years and certainly the high point in Woodcroft’s career as a coach.
When the first question was posed to him about the game, the 45-year-old paused and asked for a moment to speak about something else.
He then began a message to Chris Snow, the Calgary assistant general manager who has battled a rare form of the deadly neurological disease ALS for nearly three years.
“Before I begin, I just want to pass along some well wishes to a friend who is going through something right now,” Woodcroft said. “On behalf of myself, our coaching staff, our players, our organization and for that matter the city of Edmonton, I want to say, ‘Chris, everyone up north is with you in your fight right now.’”
He then went on to congratulate the Flames for having had an excellent season, even though his own team had just dispatched them from the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in a surprisingly short five games.
It was something to savour, and surely Woodcroft did, but in the roughly half a season that he has been behind the Oilers’ bench he has shown that he is a different sort.
For one thing, he seemingly enjoys engaging the media. He knows everyone who covers the team and addresses each by first name. On occasion, he includes soft jibes within his prolonged answers and nobody takes offence.
Also, he always stands during media availabilities. He sat just once this season and did not like it so now staff rearranges the interview area when players, who are seated at a table, are done. Darryl Sutter, his aged counterpart in Calgary, and most NHL head coaches, sit.
“It’s just a personal choice,” he said after practice on Sunday morning, first with a grin and then a chuckle. “I feel more comfortable when I stand and address a group.”
Since he was tabbed in February to replace the fired Dave Tippett, Woodcroft has proved to have a Midas touch. Edmonton was not in a playoff position when he took over but went 26-9-3 during the rest of the regular season, and has now won eight of 12 postseason games.
Its opponent in the highly anticipated Western Conference final is the Colorado Avalanche, with Games 1 and 2 in Denver on Tuesday and Thursday. This is the first time the Oilers have got this far since 2006, when they went on to lose to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Avalanche – way back, the Quebec Nordiques – have not been in the conference final since they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in 2002.
When Woodcroft was promoted to the Oilers from the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL, the parent club had gone through a recent stretch where it had lost 13 of 15 games.
“When I walked into dressing room in the beginning of February, I was bullish on our players because I saw a sincere desire to win and not just a desire to win but people willing to pay the price to win,” Woodcroft said. “I have a very clear understanding that what’s going on here is not about me personally. It is about our team doing what it needs to do to reach the next step.”
Born in Toronto, Woodcroft played centre for four years at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and then bounced around in the minors for a colourful assortment of teams, the Jackson (Miss.) Bandits, Corpus Christi Rayz, Anchorage Aces and Stuttgart Wizards among them.
He reached neither the AHL nor the NHL as a player but caught attention as a coach for his keen eye on details. He spent seven years as an assistant coach under Todd McLellan in San Jose and another three-plus seasons beneath him in Edmonton.
This is his first full-time stint as a head coach in the NHL and undoubtedly not his last. Edmonton has not announced if it will retain him but that is a good bet.
“He brought a bit of a younger voice to the team,” said Connor McDavid, the Edmonton captain. “He came in excited and brought a lot of passion and enthusiasm to the job.”
At this point, the Oilers are just four wins away from reaching the Cup final. Only Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen and Nazem Kadri stand in the way.
“It’s very hard to get to this point,” Woodcroft said. “Nobody takes it for granted. It is a special time for us as coaches and players. We are trying to block out all of the outside noise and make sure we focus on the necessary details that lead to success.”