Todd Woodcroft, Assistant Coach with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, talks about the path that led him from North America to Sweden, where he lived between 2009 and 2013. At the time he was working for the LA Kings as their Head of European Scouting and here he delves into the differences between European and North American players and how he worked to gain a better understanding of the former. The conversation then turns to the coach consultancy work he does with European federations and what they expect to learn from a seasoned NHL coach.
By John Portch
“If you’re not learning you’re not getting better,” Todd Woodcroft tells the Leaders Performance Institute. Woodcroft is an assistant coach to Paul Maurice at the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, where he has served since 2016. It is merely another stop in the peripatetic career of the Toronto native, who lived and worked in Europe as the LA Kings’ Head of European Scouting for five years.
His coaching assignments have been numerous and varied. Woodcroft went to his first Ice Hockey World Championships as a Video Coach with his native Canada in 2004 before serving as an assistant coach with Belarus at three editions of the tournament [2006, 2014 and 2016] and as an assistant with Switzerland for the 2015 edition. He also tasted gold medal success as an assistant coach with Sweden when the Three Crowns defeated his homeland in the 2017 final.
Woodcroft often returns to the Old World to deliver coaching masterclasses to attentive coaches in aspiring European nations. Not that he would call them masterclasses: “When I’m over there I’m the first one to say I don’t have all the answers and I’m learning while I’m there too.” Woodcroft is eager to tell us about the individual skill work he has witnessed in Russia (“When I come back to Winnipeg I use those sessions with our players before or after practice”) or the rare ability of defencemen in Sweden (“At a young age they’re taught not to get rid of the puck”).
It is clear that Woodcroft – who is the brother of Edmonton Oilers Assistant Coach Jay Woodcroft – sees it as a cultural exchange. Nor is he restricted to hockey and is equally comfortable discussing the English Premier League, occasionally using the world’s most lucrative soccer league to illustrate his observations on the NHL for your uninitiated correspondent.
The Leaders Performance Institute sat down with Woodcroft ahead of the ongoing NHL season to discuss some of the cultural differences he has encountered between North America and Europe.
Todd, firstly, how did you end up in Europe for the Kings?
TW: In 2009 I was working as a scout with the Los Angeles Kings and the General Manager at the time, Dean Lombardi, gave me the opportunity to move to Sweden to become the franchise’s Head of European Scouting. It was a position I held until 2013. It was really interesting because it hadn’t really been done before. The New York Islanders sent a Canadian guy over who had based himself out of Prague but he returned after two years. At the Kings, Dean was known as a guy who thinks outside the box; he was the first guy to encourage us to go and spend time with other teams. I went to visit various baseball and soccer teams, while another guy went to the New England Patriots to learn how they scout. Dean wanted to build a championship team [they would win the Stanley Cup in 2011-12 and 2013-14] and you can look at good teams and see what they have in common, but if you look at great teams you can see what makes them different. I had spent a season with Dynamo Minsk in Belarus [2008-2009] and Dean wanted to tap into my experience and my network. So it was a calculated risk to find out how Swedish, Finnish, Russian or Czech players would fit in a North American team.
What were some of the first differences you encountered in Sweden versus Canada?
TW: In Sweden, hockey is a very inclusive sport; they want everybody to play and they place an emphasis on skill development. Now Canada, which is the number one country in the world for ice hockey, the competition is beaten into players a lot earlier. It’s very similar to football in England where they take the best players and just worry about developing those best players, whereas in Sweden they try to develop everybody and they try to develop their skills; young players are allowed to make mistakes and they’re not really chastised for it. Hockey is part of the fabric of our culture in Canada and it’s such an emotional game that a lot of the time the youth coaches, they’re very hard on the players. There’s also a lot of parents in Canada living their failed dream through their kids; they might not have played hockey but they expect their kid to be the next Sidney Crosby or whoever. That’s not a disrespect to Canada – there’s a reason they’re number one – but there’s so many more players playing at every level. It’s a nation of over 36 million people and it’s harder to manage. In Sweden, it’s a little over ten million and it’s a little easier to manage.
You were the only North American scout in the country, how did your Swedish counterparts respond to you?
TW: It helped that everybody spoke English. People were very welcoming, even guys working for the other 29 NHL teams; they employed Swedish scouts. People took me in, showed me around, and helped me learn the European game, which is different to North American hockey. It’s something I’ll never forget and those relationships formed my relationship with Swedish hockey. In 2016, the Swedish Ice Hockey Association invited me to be part of their coaching staff for the World Cup and from there I was invited to the 2017 World Championships as an assistant and we won the gold medal [beating Canada 2-1 after a penalty shootout].
What specifically were you looking for in Swedish and other European players?
TW: It started with a problem. At the NHL Combine, I found that when we interviewed players, the North Americans always seemed to interview better; then I went to Europe and began to see it from the other side. Firstly, there’s the language issue; these overseas players are in a room with 15 or 20 NHL executives; men who have accomplished everything in hockey, Stanley Cups and gold medals; guys that these players will know; their heroes growing up. It’s an intimidating situation. These European guys cannot always articulate how they feel and they will not have a translator. There are also cultural differences; in Russia, for example, there is an emphasis on respecting your elders and a lot of the time that translates into not looking someone in the eye. In North American culture, if you don’t look someone in the eye it’s often interpreted as a sign of weakness; or if someone gives you a weak handshake someone might say ‘I don’t want him on my team’. But these kids are 17-years-old and we’d be making judgements about what they’re going to be in the next three to five years based on a three-minute conversation. That for me was a big deal because North American players have a huge advantage; they’re trained for these combines, how to shake hands, how to look someone in the eye etc.
How did you go about trying to develop a deeper understanding of the players you were watching?
TW: At the LA Kings, what made Dean special is that he wanted to get to know the players as people and that to me was one of the biggest lessons; you go, you learn, and you meet the players. They were sending all of us scouts to meet their families and have dinner with them. Instead of talking about mistakes they made with a puck we’d ask about motivations or favourite subjects at school; or in a dinner setting you’d see how they treat people working at a restaurant.
Did that approach work in Sweden?
TW: It did and I firmly believe that you can outwork people, so even in scouting you can out-scout others. A lot of time scouts leave early because they want to avoid the traffic. You can’t leave a game early – never leave a game early; it’s part of your job and you have to be there until the end. If it’s a team winning 10-0 and you’re there watching a player, you want to see how he reacts, whether he’s on the winning or the losing team; you want to see their body language, how they treat their teammates when they win or lose, how they treat opponents and referees, how they treat their coaches, how they present themselves after a game, how they’re dressed; are they professional-looking? Ultimately looking to answer: is this the type of player we want to have on our team?
You continue to work closely with a number of European federations. What is their primary aim when bringing in people from the NHL?
TW: They’re looking for North American ideas. For example, a lot of eastern European countries are coming from the old model of screaming and yelling and mistake-pointing. It’s explaining to the coaches that even the best players make mistakes and the key is in how you correct those mistakes; you want to be positive influence on these players’ lives. You want to be role model in how you behave as a coach and react to referees. You need to let the kids understand that it’s a fun game; 99% will never play a professional game in their life but hopefully they’ll learn different lessons; how to win or lose gracefully, how to treat the other players, referees, the actual locker rooms.
What sort of questions will coaches in a nation such as Poland or Belarus be asking you?
TW: We’ll talk tactics and answer all of their questions but we want to know how they set up a practice; we want to know that when they have a practice it’s not just instructions from the coach; it’s letting the players learn by experience; letting the players solve problems. At the beginning they are probably intimidated and by the end they realise that we’re normal guys too and we’ve just been lucky to have the opportunities that came our way.
And your biggest lesson from your time working with Team Sweden?
TW: In Sweden, players are involved in decisions, which is very foreign to me as a North American coach. I came back to Winnipeg after the World Championships, spoke to Paul Maurice, and said I think that it’s great that they collectively solve problems. Swedish culture is very inclusive and if you have an opinion then you share it. There’s a reason why we made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup and why we won the World Championships.