Craig Woodcroft has been preparing for this job all his life
Canadian Olympic assistant coach comes from a hockey family and played for the national team
On the way to his new gig with Hockey Canada — assistant coach for the men's 2018 Olympic squad — Craig Woodcroft stops to revisit his first turn with the national team.
That was back between 1988 and 1994 as a player. During and following four fruitful years at Colgate University in Upstate New York, the Toronto native suited up 64 times for Canada and played all over the world.
He almost performed for Canada at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer but was one of coach Tom Renney's final cuts.
"In many ways, it seems very natural, albeit surreal," the 47-year-old Woodcroft says of his transition from player to coach. "I took great pride as a player [in] trying to be a student of the game, learning from all the coaches — both [their] tactics and personality traits that led them to be successful or not-so-successful coaches.
"While with Team Canada, I played for both Dave King and Tom Renney — two coaches I have a lot of respect for. So to get to work for and with them now on this staff is a great honour."
Renney now runs Hockey Canada. Like Woodcroft, King is an assistant on head coach Willie Desjardins's staff for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
"I recall Craig being a complete team player with a high hockey IQ," Renney says. "His works habits were excellent as well."
Hockey in his blood
The Woodcroft surname should have a familiar ring to ardent hockey followers. Younger brothers Todd, 46, and Jay, 41, are assistant coaches for the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, respectively.
Hockey was in the boys' blood. Their father, Frank, was an accomplished junior goaltender and they also had four hockey-playing and hockey-passionate uncles in Paul, Bud, Gerry and Gord.
Paul and Bud were Catholic priests and played for Father Les Costello's colourful Flying Fathers. Costello was a left wing on the 1947-48 Stanley Cup-winning Toronto Maple Leafs and was ordained as a priest in 1957.
"The game is so ingrained in all of us," Craig Woodcroft says. "We've been in hockey since we were all toddlers. So the passion for the game has always been there for each of us. The coaching side of the sport has been built up over the course of many, many years, dating back to when we were all teenagers, working summer jobs at hockey schools in Toronto.
"We loved connecting with people, teaching them about something we all loved, and that was playing the game. Over time, our teaching skills, communication skills and leadership skills were honed, and when opportunities arose for each of us to coach in pro hockey, in whatever capacity, we were ready."
Craig, a centre, was the most accomplished player of the three brothers. He scored the game-winning goal for Colgate in the 1990 Frozen Four semifinals to send his team to the U.S. collegiate championship game, which Colgate lost 7-3 to Wisconsin.
The Chicago Blackhawks selected Craig in the seventh round (134th overall) of the 1988 NHL draft. He never played in the NHL, but Woodcroft carved out a successful 13-season pro career with 17 different teams in Canada, the U.S., Finland, Germany, Italy, England and Sweden.
After his playing days concluded, Woodcroft founded a successful hockey instruction establishment based in Minnesota, called Northern Edge.
He later enjoyed coaching-staff stints with the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues before he returned to Europe to help former Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins head coach Dave Lewis run the Belarus national team in the past three world championships.
It was neat to see the three Woodcrofts coaching at the 2015 world championship. Jay won gold as a member of Canada's staff, while Craig and Todd advanced to the quarter-finals with Belarus and Switzerland, respectively. Todd went on to win gold as an assistant coach with Sweden last spring.
"My advice to Craig would be to take everything in, soak in every moment and relationship," Todd says. "The number of good people you meet in these types of tournaments is astounding.
"I know from talking with him how lucky he feels to have been chosen to represent the logo he once was fortunate enough to wear."
As a result of his work with the Belarus national team, Craig landed the head coach position with Dinamo Minsk in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. He took a low-budget, basement-dwelling team to the top third in the standings last season, thanks to a strong offensive attack and effective power-play unit.
"The creation of offence and running an effective, dangerous PP were something, I think, that intrigued Willie Desjardins, [general manager] Sean Burke, Dave King and [Hockey Canada executive] Scott Salmond," says Craig, who now coaches Geneve-Servette in the Swiss league. "I also have very good familiarity with the vast majority of candidates we are looking at to fill our roster, having coached them or against them.
"They also know my brothers, who have both worked on Team Canada staffs before, and they have experienced success with them. So I think that familiarity with our family and the type of people we are, and coaches we are, certainly helped."
Both Jay and Todd have helped Canada win a world title. Todd was part of the 2004 Canadian coaching staff and Jay followed suit 11 years later. Both also have Stanley Cup rings — Jay as a member of the 2007-08 Red Wings staff, Todd as part of the Los Angeles Kings' scouting department in 2011-12.
Craig would like nothing more than to add an Olympic medal to the family trophy case.