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.

 

long time running

Let the record show (as it duly does) that it was on Monday, April 19 earlier this year that Patrick Marleau played in the 1,768th regular-season game of his 23-year NHL career and that while his San Jose Sharks lost on the night in a 3-2 shootout to the Vegas Golden Knights, Marleau did surpass fellow Saskatchewaner Gordie Howe’s record for games played on the ice in Nevada. Now 42, Marleau isn’t skating this season, but nor has he officially retired, so there’s a chance he could add to the total of 1,779 games he finished out last season with.

To honour Marleau’s achievement, the Sharks commissioned Ottawa artist Tony Harris to paint this portrait, which was presented to the Swift-Current-born centreman this past summer. Harris, of course, is an accomplished portrayer of hockey heroes and heroics: in 2017, he undertook to paint the NHL’s 100 greatest players for the league’s centenary. I wrote about that, and about Harris, for a New York Times profile you can find here (and also here); for more of his mastery, visit his website. Working up the Marleau portrait, Harris was noting earlier this month, he aimed to pay tribute to Marleau’s family in the details. So Marleau’s wife’s name, Christina, is inscribed in the cuff of a glove, and his sons’ initials appear on the stock of his stick. Marleau’s (and Howe’s) Saskatchewan roots are hidden in plain sight, too: Howe’s stick features a sheaf of prairie wheat, while the stars that fill the nighttime background depict the exact constellation that was arranged over Swift Current that April night earlier this year when Marleau skated out in Vegas for his record-breaking game.

(Top image courtesy of Tony Harris)

poking the beard

The Edmonton Oilers beat the San Jose Sharks on Monday, 5-3, at home. That was the headline out of Alberta Tuesday, with due attention paid to the goals (two) that Ryan Strome of the Oilers scored along with the shots (18) that Cam Talbot stopped. Edmonton’s Patrick Maroon got some notice, too, for what one CBC wag dubbed a ZZ-Top Hattrick: “That’s a goal, an assist, and three beard tugs.” The beard in question belonged to San Jose defenceman Brent Burns. He was down in front of his net and Maroon was in there too, scrabbling for the puck, and when the whistle blew, Maroon reached for Burns’ beard. “I was laughing about it and he was laughing about it,” Maroon told reporters later. “I thought he would be mad at first, but he just asked me if I liked it and I said yeah, it’s a pretty nice beard.” Burns, for the record, notched two assists on the night. Toronto illustrator Dave Murray worked up this portrait of him earlier this year as part of a series focussed on the stars of the 2017 playoffs. Browse more of Murray’s artistry — prints are available, too, for sale — over at http://davemurrayillustration.com/

 

imaginary numbers: maple leaf math edition

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“Very proud,” Brendan Shanahan was telling the media at the Air Canada Centre, “very happy today. Happy to introduce Mike as the 30th coach in Toronto Maple Leafs’ history. Thank you, Mike. Welcome.”

Except, of course, that Babcock is the 31st man to coach the Leafs. Dick Duff is the odd man out, relegated to a footnote in the team’s media-guide list of head coaches, untallied in the overall count that runs, now, from Alex Romeril to the pride of Manitouwadge, Ontario (Babcock’s hometown) by way of Saskatoon (where he grew up).

The Leafs, of course, are free to count their coaches in any way they so choose. But the case for leaving Duff out is cloudy, at best; the logic for including him in is at least persuasive as that associated with several other names who are on the list.

Duff’s tenure was brief, lasting just two games in March of 1980. It came on suddenly, overnight, when the incumbent Floyd Smith was injured in a car accident on a Friday night. Smith had a couple of assistants that year, Duff and Johnny Bower, and on the Saturday morning ahead of an evening game, GM Punch Imlach put Duff in charge. “I told the players that Duff had absolute control of the team,” Imlach told reporters, “and I wanted them to do exactly what he told them.”

Still, it was a stopgap measure, no question about that, an emergency measure, a battlefield commission. Much like (minus the highway accident) the situation that the San Jose Sharks found themselves in December of 2002. In that case, GM Dean Lombardi had fired his head coach, Darryl Sutter, and a pair of assistants, named a Shark scout, Cap Raeder, as a temporary replacement. He did the job for precisely one game, a 3-2 overtime win over Phoenix, before Lombardi got a new coach, Ron Wilson, into place. According to the Sharks’ media guide, he was the seventh coach in team history, just as the man who succeeds the eighth (Todd McLellan) will be the ninth — i.e. no bumping about in the footnotes for Cap Raeder.

Brevity shouldn’t sink Duff’s cause. Maybe, then, Leaf management and asterisk lobbyists would argue that everybody knew that Duff wasn’t going to last, he was no more than a placeholder, a bookmark, filling a space behind the Leaf bench until the new, real coach showed up.

On that basis, Alex Romeril shouldn’t count, either — he was only doing the job in the latter days of the 1927 season until Conn Smythe finished up his coaching commitment with the University of Toronto Grads. And what about Peter Horachek, this year? Like Duff, he was an assistant who found himself appointed interim coach when, in his case, GM Dave Nonis fired Randy Carlyle this past January. Nobody expected him be in the job beyond the end of the season. He was, but only for a day or so: Brendan Shanahan fired him and Nonis on the Sunday after the Leafs played their final game.

Ah-ha (as the Leafs might say, and do, in this imaginary debate I’m having with them, whether they know it or not) — ha-ha, but Punch Imlach never spoke the magic word, whatever the GM might have mentioned about absolute control, Dick Duff was never officially anointed with those three all-important syllables: interim.

Is that true, though? On Monday, March 17, 1980, the day Duff coached his second and last game in the NHL, newspapers across the continent published a brief Associated Press notice that included the words Dick and Duff and named and interim coach. The AP would have got their information from some reputable source — maybe the PR people at the NHL? Likewise The Toronto Star, wherein readers of the small print in the sports pages might have seen this:

duff interim

Is that enough to pluck Duff out of the margins and get him properly numbered as the fifteenth coach in Leaf history? I don’t know. Maybe Mike Babcock could put a word in for him. Continue reading

this week: sale prices and a heart so huge, mumps and whatnot

Washington Capitals defenceman Mike Green talked, this week, about the distractions of playing out of doors at the NHL’s New Year’s Day Winter Classic. He said he wasn’t worried about sun or winds or snows. “Once you’re in the game,” he told Stephen Whyno from The Canadian Press, “everything’s instinct and whatnot.”

Washington captain Alex Ovechkin? Also no concerned. “I just don’t think about what I’m gonna do out there. We’re gonna skate on the ice and then we’re gonna go to the locker-room.”

His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada (and a distinguished hockey player in his own right), announced today 95 new appointments to the Order of Canada this week, and hockey names were among them, including the former Bruin and Red Wing Sheldon Kennedy and broadcaster Bob Cole.

Kennedy’s citation lauds his, quote, courageous leadership in raising awareness of childhood sexual abuse and his continued efforts to prevent abuse in schools, sports and communities.

Cole’s recognitions comes

For enhancing the hockey experience for generations of Canadians with his analysis and spirited announcing as one of Canada’s most iconic voices in sports broadcasting.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am today,” he told Six Seixeiro and Stephen Brunt at Sportsnet. “All I’ve done is tried my best at my job, and enjoyed what my job is.”

Other appointees included Mark Carney, erstwhile goaltender for the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club, and hockey biographer Charles Foran, author of Extraordinary Canadians: Maurice Richard (2011).

Martin Brodeur shut his net to the Colorado Avalanche this week: 16 shots they took and not a one went past him. St. Louis’ 3-0 win was the 691st victory of Brodeur’s career, and his 125th shutout (an NHL record).

“This is the first one with the Blues, so it definitely means a lot to me,” Brodeur was saying after the game. “It’s our job as goaltenders not to give up anything. It wasn’t the hardest game to play, but you still have to make the saves.”

Signed to fill Brian Elliott’s injured absence, Brodeur isn’t sure what’s next. Elliott is recovered now and returning to the Blues’ net, so there was talk this week that Brodeur might be out of a job and (maybe?) a career. Or would he find another temporary home with another needy team?

“If St. Louis decides to let him go,” wrote Guy Spurrier in The National Post, “he could become the most accomplished rent-a-goalie in NHL history, wandering the league, helping teams with short-term crises like a puck-stopping Littlest Hobo.” Continue reading