tommy woodcock, 1933—2022

Sorry to see news of the death earlier this week of Tommy Woodcock, the first trainer the St. Louis Blues ever had, and a veteran of the dressing rooms of the Hartford Whalers and San Jose Sharks. He was 89.

In Providence, Rhode Island, Woodcock grew up as the son of the manager of the local Arena, and he got his first job there in the 1940s when, as a 12-year-old, he served as (in his words) “a squeegee boy, helping brush the excess water off the rink after it had been flooded.” On his skates, he played centre and right wing, and scored some goals in the 1950s on New England senior amateur ice and, briefly, in the Eastern Hockey League.

As the story goes, Buddy LeRoux, trainer of Boston’s Celtics and Red Sox, was the one to suggest he take up as a trainer. Woodcock started out tending college teams at Brown, in Providence, and worked with the AHL Providence Reds, as well as with local baseball and football teams before GM Lynn Patrick hired him in 1967 to be the trainer for the expansion St. Louis Blues. With the Reds, he was a protégé of trainer George Army, a local legend who maintained that he’d learned to stitch hockey wounds by slicing up oranges and then sewing them back together.

Woodcock was 34 when he started in St. Louis. For 16 years he tended the Blues, who vied their way (in vain) during that tenure through three Stanley Cup Finals. The times, they were simpler, back then, as Woodcock recalled for NHL.com in 2008: “The players did a lot. They carried their own bags. We never washed the underwear, we just hung it up to dry.”

Woodcock’s other duties, in his day, ran the regular gamut. He sharpened skates, maintained and modified equipment, stitched wounds, ministered to aches, pains, scuffs, concussings. He wielded tape — a lot of tape. For a cheerful newspaper profile in 1970, Woodcock estimated that the Blues’ annual roll-out of tape was some 212,000 yards for socks-securing and another 3,300 yards for sticks.

In 1973, Woodcock organized his expertise into a book.

In 1979, around the occasion of his 1,000th NHL game, Woodcock testified that Bernie Federko was the most talented player he’d had under his care, while original Blues’ captain Al Arbour rated the highest pain tolerance of any of his charges. Garry Unger, meanwhile, had “the best set of muscle structure” in Blues’ history. “That’s why,” Woodcock said, “he never has any pulled or strained muscles.”

“Arbour was typical of some of the old-timers,” Woodcock waxed in ’79, “he was totally dedicated to the game.” The biggest change he’d seen in his time in big-league hockey? “The young guys coming into the league now aren’t dedicated. They aren’t willing to work to improve themselves. If they’re not doing well, they’ll blame their stick or a part of their equipment — but never blame themselves or try to work harder.”

One then-current Blue was excused from this indictment: Brian Sutter. “He’s the last of the real dedicated hockey players,” Woodcock said.

In 1983, Woodcock followed former Blues’ GM Emile Francis to the Hartford Whalers. In 1991, GM Jack Ferreira hired him to be the first trainer for the expansion San Jose Sharks. He would continue to work as a consultant with the Sharks well into his 70s and in so doing, in 2008 attended his 40th NHL training camp. All told, he presided over more than 3,000 NHL games, regular-season and playoff.

In 1973, Woodcock became the first NHL trainer to organize his experience and expertise into a book when he published Hockey From The Ice Up, a helpful how-to aimed at aspiring young players, their parents, and coaches. It counselled on equipment and pregame meals, ran down conditioning best practices, delineated hockey injuries (from butterflies to tongue-swallowing), and identified some key dos and don’ts for those hoping to succeed in hockey (stay away from alcohol and solvent-sniffing).

In 2003, Woodcock was inducted into the Hall of Fame that the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society curates under the auspices of the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Lefty Wilson, Skip Thayer, and Eddy Palchak in the pantheon.

 

fix you

Pause For Patchwork: That’s Gump Worsley’s eyebrow we’re seeing here, after the Montreal Canadiens’ long-suffering goaltender took a puck just below his (unmasked) eye in the third period of a game at Montreal’s Forum on Saturday, December 23, 1967. It was a battle of last-place teams, with Canadiens dwelling in the cellar of the NHL’s East Division while the visiting Oakland Seals anchored the West. With Worsley here is Canadiens defenceman (#3) J.C. Tremblay with (probably) team medic Dr. Doug Kinnear ministering and (possibly) trainer Larry Aubut standing by — unless it’s Montreal’s other trainer, Eddie Palchak. Off in the middle distance is Oakland defenceman Ron Harris. Worsley stayed in the game, despite his wounds, seeing out Montreal’s 4-2 win. (Image: Pierre McCann, Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

no ordinary joe

Red Fisher said that Claude Provost was the Bob Gainey of his day. “He wasn’t as big, probably didn’t have as much skating talent, and maybe didn’t hit as hard as Gainey,” the Montreal Gazette’s longtime columnist enthused, “but he was terribly effective. He had to be to stop somebody like Bobby Hull the way he did … and he was definitely a better scorer than Gainey.”

The question of whether Provost deserves a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame may or may not be answered this coming Tuesday when a new class of inductees is named. Provost, who only ever played for the Montreal Canadiens during his 15-year NHL career, certainly has a bevy of Stanley Cup championships to endorse him: he helped the Habs win nine in his time. Renowned as a right winger for his prowess as a checker, he also led the Canadiens in goalscoring in 1961-62, when he scored 33 in a line-up that included Bernie Geoffrion and Jean Béliveau. In 1964-65, he was named to the First All-Star Team, ahead of a pretty good right winger from Detroit named Gordie Howie. Provost also won the first Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 1968 in recognition of his dedication, sportsmanship, and perseverance.

After Provost’s death at the age of 50 in 1984, Tim Burke of the Montreal Gazette remembered him as “one of the best-liked guys ever who ever wore CH on his chest and the premier defensive forward of his time.” Toe Blake assigned him to shadow Bobby Hull whenever Montreal played Chicago during the 1960s, and he had some success in (to borrow Burke’s phrase) trussing up the explosive left winger. Provost wasn’t always convinced that he was winning that duel, though. “I used to have pretty good success in checking,” he said of Hull in 1964, “then I got caught twice and scored two goals. What am I supposed to do, sit on him?”

Henri Richard was his roommate in junior and throughout his Montreal career. “He had very little talent,” he said, fondly, “but he made up for everything with hard work. … He even became a goalscorer by just getting in front all the time. We used to kid him that more goals went in off his ass than his stick.” He’d anchor himself in the slot with a distinctive bow-legged stance, digging his skates into the ice so hard that, as Canadiens’ equipment manager Eddie Palchak recalled, “he needed his skates sharpened after every period.”

“That’s why we started calling him Cowboy Joe,” Richard said, “those bow legs of his. He was the perfect guy to room with. You couldn’t stay down in the dumps with him around. He was always fun and a great team man.”