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 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.