UVM men’s hockey coach Todd Woodcroft on Babcock: ‘Equivalent of a Bill Belichick’

Todd Woodcroft instructs players during a Winnipeg Jets practice.

Although both positions are unpaid, the University of Vermont men’s hockey program landed a pair of NHL veterans on Wednesday.

Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock, eighth all-time in NHL wins, was named a volunteer advisor, while former first-round pick Mark Stuart, 36, two years removed from his last professional appearance, joins the Catamount staff as an assistant in his first coaching assignment.

More:Woodcroft’s coaching staff to include Mike Babcock as ‘volunteer advisor’

UVM coach Todd Woodcroft has previous ties to both Babcock and Stuart, and the new Catamount coach raved about the additions as well as retaining Jeff Hill, who will enter his sixth campaign in Burlington.

Woodcroft spoke with a Burlington Free Press reporter on Thursday to discuss his staff. The phone interview was edited for length and clarity.

Burlington Free Press: Has it been challenging not to be working in Burlington yet?

(Editor’s note: Woodcroft said he’s expected to make the move from Minnesota to Vermont by mid-August).

Todd Woodcroft: There are advantages and disadvantages. I guess the disadvantage of not being there is, I’m not able to help people solve problems … and that doesn’t just involve the hockey department. That means all the people throughout campus who are pitching in to help — whether that’s sewing masks and helping out the frontline workers to making sure the facilities are safe and clean. For me, I’m having a hard time with that.

But on the other side, there is a little bit of an advantage, being that I’m holed up in my house and I’m consumed with trying to make this team better. I’ve been able to watch all the games from last year and go through each player, his shifts, and be able to be educated on how they play and how we can turn their play up a notch or two.

More:How UVM landed NHL assistant coach Todd Woodcroft for the men’s hockey gig

More:Why NHL assistant coach Todd Woodcroft wanted the UVM men’s hockey job

BFP: Having gone through all those UVM games, was there something you didn’t notice the first time you watched (film) during the process of getting the job?

TW: I think any coach coming into a situation is going to have ideas on how to make things better. The one thing I would say is, I was reaffirmed in a lot of the beliefs that I had watching this team starting in April. My eyes didn’t lie to me: This team is built heavily on character and heavily on student-athletes who gave everything they had every single night. I think Kevin Sneddon and his staff did a remarkable job in bringing in the right people.

Todd Woodcroft has been picked as UVM's next men's hockey coach.

BFP: What exactly will Mike Babcock’s role be with the team? Will he be around the team in Burlington?

TW: He is going to come in at different times during the season, spend time with the team and watch us. He wants to see the practices and make tweaks to our game. He’s a Hall of Fame coach, he’s the equivalent of a Bill Belichick, the equivalent of a Phil Jackson. This is one of the top coaching minds who transcends any sport.

Most people don’t realize, Mike Babcock changed the game of hockey in the early 2000s. All the middle drive stuff you see, that was developed by Mike Babcock. For us to be able to tap into a resource like Mike, this is a grand slam. At the end of day all I really care about is making these players better and giving them every chance of being a professional player. I talk to Mike about two, three times a week and all we talk about is UVM hockey. This guy is all in. He talks about the team as a we.

FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2019, file photo, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock shouts from behind the bench during the third period of the team's NHL hockey game against the San Jose Sharks in Toronto. Babcock and Peter Laviolette are among the six coaches already fired this season. (Hans Deryk/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

BFP: Why were there no concerns or apprehension in bringing on Babcock when there are allegations of mental abuse from his coaching past? When there are allegations of mental abuse from his coaching past?

(Editor’s note: Weeks after Babcock was fired by the Maple Leafs last year, Toronto president Brendan Shanahan addressed allegations of mental abuse levied against Babcock and called his coaching tactics not “appropriate or acceptable”).

TW: I think you are assuming that there was no apprehension or that there was no consideration to that. And of course there is. When you hire anybody, you do your homework on them because if you don’t do your homework on people you get a lot of surprises. When you’re a head coach in a market like Toronto, every single thing you do is viewed 24 hours a day. There are multiple channels on television and in radio that are dedicated to hockey and to the Leafs that are specific.

So I’m in no position to say that I understand what happened in Toronto and I would never discount the experiences of any person. What I can tell you is that with my experiences with Mike have been the exact opposite. I’m the boss here, the buck stops with me and Mike is very cognizant of that, he’s aware of that fact that he’s here to help this coaching staff and his primary responsibility is to work with the coaching staff and to make us better coaches.

Not in a zillion years would I have someone on our staff who I felt would be problematic to these players. We brought this to the players and allowed them to have a voice in this … and these players were so excited to be able to share their hockey experience with a coach like Mike Babcock.

BFP: Crossing paths during your time together in Winnipeg, did you realize Mark Stuart had the makings to be a future coach?

TW: It was probably within the first 15 minutes of meeting Mark that I knew that this guy would be giving a lot back to this game. He is a worker, he’s a kind, disciplined, detailed, compassionate, experienced man who knows how to communicate with young and old players.

This guy is going to be a superstar coach going down the road.

Winnipeg Jets defenseman Mark Stuart, left, hits Colorado Avalanche center Carl Soderberg during the first period at MTS Centre.

BFP: When you started up your coaching search, was this how you expected it to play out?

(Editor’s note: When UVM’s hiring freeze is lifted, Woodcroft said he will add one more assistant coach).

TW: I wanted to surround the players with a recently retired NHL player, somebody who could speak to the players about their past. I wanted the players who could help them understand what it takes to be an NHL player. With the finest details of playing defense, I wanted someone who’s been doing it with Joe Thornton trying to jam a stick down your throat or Connor McDavid trying to pull by on a 1-on-1 — I can’t elucidate to players what that feels like but I can tell you that Mark Stuart knows how to handle those situations.

For the volunteer coaching advisor, that thought never crossed my mind. That all came from a phone call from Mike to me, asking about the ability for that to happen. First, I thought he was joking. As it evolved, I realized he was serious and he wanted to pursue it. I felt like I won the lottery when both of those guys joined our staff, just like I felt when we retained Jeff Hill.

Contact Alex Abrami at 660-1848 or aabrami@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aabrami5.

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