Soon after Kevin Sneddon announced his intentions to retire at the end of his 17th season in charge of the University of Vermont men’s hockey team, athletic director Jeff Schulman heard from Noah Segall, the program’s former director of operations.
As Schulman prepared to begin a national search to replace Sneddon, Segall tossed a name in the mix for consideration: Todd Woodcroft, a longtime NHL coach who has spent the last four seasons with the Winnipeg Jets.
“He said you may want to take a look at this guy,” Schulman said, “and it evolved from there.”
More than two months later, and smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that prolonged the process for the school and its most sought-after candidates, Schulman and UVM selected Woodcroft, 47, as the fifth Catamount coach in program history.
“I talked to several head coaches in college hockey including in our league who know Todd and feel like he’s a really exceptional person and his background and international reputation for player and skill development indicated he was somebody we should really consider,” Schulman said.
“We really felt like he was a great fit for UVM and where we want to move our program,” said the fourth-year AD and 1989 alum of the hockey program.
‘Bold move’ hiring Woodcroft
Woodcroft was UVM’s guy, its top choice, according to Adam Wodon of College Hockey News. And Woodcroft yearned for a situation that had presented itself in Burlington. The marriage seems like an ideal match for both parties: A coach on an upward trajectory to take the reins of a program and a school hoping the right person could spark a return to prominence after seven losing seasons this decade.
“This isn’t just a good place,” Woodcroft said Thursday during a phone interview, “this is a destination where you want to be.”
Schulman: “When I really evaluated what I think our program needs and to take the next step and compete at a championship level, which is what our goal is, Todd is the best person to help make that happen.”
On the surface, there are questions. UVM’s opening, the final vacancy out of the 60 Division I teams, went to a coach who has no NCAA background either as a player or as a member of a college staff. And despite a stacked resume, the UVM gig is also Woodcroft’s first head-coaching assignment.
“I don’t know if I consider myself a maverick in any way, but I also don’t mind pushing up against the status quo,” Schulman said. “Most of our candidates came from deep inside the college hockey world and Todd represented a pretty stark contrast in that regard.
“I’ve never been a believer that there is one career path for a successful coach. For me, it’s more about the person and their core values and what they bring to the job.”
Jerry Tarrant, part of an alumni group that played a small role in the interview process, praised the decision.
“This is a bold move and I really respect it. There were a couple choices that were safe choices and nobody would have challenged Jeff on it,” said Tarrant, who played hockey with Schulman at UVM. “Having talked with this guy, I can see the allure of (Woodcroft). This one is so far out of the mainstream of what people thought was going to happen that it creates an even higher level of excitement.”
Associate athletic director Joe Gervais, another UVM hockey alum, called it a “non-traditional hire.” But the overwhelming reaction has been positive, and could be viewed as a sneaky-good hire when the time comes for judgement.
“I’ve been part of a lot of searches over the years and there’s never one candidate who has absolutely everything,” Gervais said. “Time will tell how good a hire it was, but we feel like he’s a great person for the job right now.”
Woodcroft impressed by UVM’s approach, team’s potential
Woodcroft hasn’t stepped foot into Gutterson Fieldhouse in about five years. And the COVID-19 crisis turned all formal interviews from in-person to video or phone conversations.
But that was only a minor setback thanks to modern technology.
Resuming after the pandemic delayed proceedings for a couple weeks, Woodcroft was impressed by UVM’s pursuit and dogged preparedness.
“They were meticulous in their research about me. They did a marvelous job vetting me,” Woodcroft said. “It was an intense process, I felt like the character of Red in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ at the parole hearings.”
Woodcroft also noticed the longevity of the administrators and coaches he spoke with. Schulman and Gervais are each closing in on 30 years at their alma mater. Men’s head basketball coach John Becker just wrapped his 14th season with the program.
“That’s the greatest testament to a school,” Woodcroft said.
Schulman said they had to win over Woodcroft, too.
“A big part of this process was us selling Vermont to Todd,” Schulman said. “I think it became pretty clear as the process went along that this was a good fit on both sides.”
And, of course, Woodcroft had to beat out a strong candidate field. Six others were formally interviewed; associate head coaches Ben Barr of Massachusetts and Jerry Keefe of Northeastern were the other two finalists, according to several media reports.
“There seems to be a real synergy between (Schulman) and Todd, two people who share a common vision of trying to bring the program back to prominence,” said Jay Woodcroft, Todd’s younger brother. “I think the way that he prepared and delivered in the process, he showed them how serious he was about the responsibility.”
Woodcroft was also sold on the team’s potential. Sure, the Catamounts won just two games in Hockey East this winter, part of a 66-136-37 record in conference play over the last decade. But the Toronto native and 1995 McGill graduate saw a group who played and skated hard.
“I watched some games (on film) and this was a team that never quit, they blocked shots for each other,” Woodcroft said. “They were in so many one-goal games.”
Background has prepared Woodcroft
Woodcroft has spent the last two decades with five NHL teams in various roles, most notably as a scout. He won a Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 as the team’s primary European scout. He also was an assistant coach on gold-medal winning teams for Canada and Sweden at the 2004 and 2017 IIHF World championships, respectively.
Given his NHL experience, his teaching knowledge of the game — “a cutting edge technician,” his brother said — and the contacts he has amassed in North America and Europe, it was only a matter of time before a professional team or school offered Todd Woodcroft a head gig.
“There’s a reason the best players in the world gravitate toward him. Yes, he’s dynamic and he has a magnetic personality but, most importantly, he’s got the coaching chops,” said Jay Woodcroft, a former NHL assistant coach who now leads the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors. “He’s earned every opportunity, he’s earned the right to work with the best people in the sport.
“He’s spent the last 20 years of his life preparing for this moment.”
The key to unlocking the Catamounts’ success is through recruiting, finding elite players, and Tarrant said Woodcroft appears to have that ability.
“For me, I feel like recruiting is a very important part of the job, maybe the most important. I felt like he spoke to that,” Tarrant said. “These kids will say, ‘This is a guy who can get me ready to achieve my goal of playing in the National Hockey League.’ That’s a good reason to go to Vermont.”
Naturally, Woodcroft’s younger brother believes in him.
“He has an unmatched work ethic. When he sets his mind to something, he’s a very driven person,” Jay Woodcroft said. “That’s why I think the University of Vermont not only got a great human being, but a very motivated and a very prepared hockey coach.
“He’s going to make it his mission for that program to succeed.”