Though written over one hundred years ago, Charles Dickens’ immortal words accurately summarize the about-face that Dinamo Minsk has recently sustained—from their worst-ever performance in franchise history to their first playoff appearance in years. Against the backdrop of sizable personnel changes and a global pandemic, head coach Craig Woodcroft oversaw Dinamo’s transformation from bottom-feeder to playoff contender. With the assistance of Mikhail Grabovski and Pavel Perepekhin, the troika lured a sizable contingent of promising Belarusian youngsters away from North America, rounding out the locker room with battle-tested KHL imports including Rob Klinkhammer and Brandon Kozun. The team finished the regular season seventh in the West, falling to powerhouse SKA Saint Petersburg in the first round of the playoffs. Their upgrade in the standings was predicated on a seismic overhaul of team culture.
No stranger to the pressures that often fall on the shoulders of import talent, Woodcroft played in Europe for nearly a decade, returning to coach in both the Deutsche Eishockey Liga and the National League prior to his KHL debut in 2016. He briefly departed for Genève-Servette before returning to Minsk as head coach in 2019. Woodcroft has served as an assistant for both Team Belarus and Team Canada, guiding the latter to a Spengler Cup victory and an Olympic bronze at Pyeongchang 2018.
Woodcroft is the eldest of a hockey family that includes brothers Jay and Todd—both of whom have coached at the highest levels of collegiate, club and international hockey. The family war-chest includes Olympic accolades, a Stanley Cup run and nearly 2,000 NHL appearances. Perhaps the most impressive collective milestone arrived in 2015, when all three brothers coached separate national teams at the World Championships.
I caught up with Woodcroft at the conclusion of Dinamo’s playoff run. We discussed the team turnaround, several standout performances and his family coaching dynasty.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You have spoken a great deal about the culture shift in Minsk that led to the team’s performance improvement. Can you talk about some of the tangible steps that were taken prior to the season?
Craig Woodcroft (CW): When I came to Minsk two years ago, I knew that the team had suffered through a few seasons of not winning, of not making the playoffs. And I knew that there were some issues inside of the team that needed to be fixed and addressed in order to turn the fortune of the team around. It was not just the transition that the country was going through—a changing of the guard from older generational players to the younger generation. There were a few things we needed to address and fix. Over that first year, we figured out that we needed to move on from some players in order to get the culture right. We had to get complete alignment with the players, the coaches and management. In a nice way, we got rid of the people who were not interested. Anybody who wasn't aligned with where the organization wanted to go, we couldn't march forward with them anymore.
GK: Who were the leaders within your locker room that enforced these values?
CW: I think the first person we looked to was a guy like Rob Klinkhammer. It started with him. We brought in Brandon Kozun, who is a long-time veteran player in this league and has had a lot of success. I had him on the Olympic Team, so I know his character and his gritty approach to the game. I know how he likes to hold people accountable. If someone needed a wake-up call internally, he wasn't afraid to step up and address people. That's the sort of accountability we were looking to infuse in the team. There was a trickle-down effect to other guys too, like Shane Prince and to some extent Ryan Spooner, who also had to become better leaders.
GK: You said in the press conference that Shane Prince had an MVP-level season. What do you believe unlocked such a performance?
CW: At the end of last season, there were a lot of question marks—whether we were going to have a team, the financial viability of the team. When we finally were given the green light, we quickly realized that some of the commitments with players really couldn't be honored without seriously affecting our ability to put a competitive team together.
We had to go back and rework the contracts of a few players to get them to an area where the team could afford to pay them, but also give us an ability to go out and surround them with other good players in order for the team to have success. Shane Prince was one of those players. He had to take a significant pay cut. He did it based on conversations he had with me and management. Basically our story to him was, "Listen, we need you to do this. The team needs you to do this in order to have success, so we can bring in other players and you're going to be a big part of this turnaround. So you, Shane, have to pretty much bet on yourself."
GK: That is no small ask, especially when paired with a pay cut.
CW: And he did it. For me, I'm extremely happy for him because it's not easy to do what he did. The gamble he took on himself has really paid off because he had to hold himself to a high standard, something that would warrant such a sacrifice—and to his credit, he did. He played lights out the whole year.
GK: You brought over a number of young, promising Belarusian players from overseas. How did you sell the opportunity in light of Minsk’s recent track record, and how much did you benefit from the uncertainty of the North American seasons in those negotiations?
CW: In some ways, we got very lucky because of the situation that the hockey world was in—we were able to capitalize on that. But we were also in a desperate position. Maybe desperate's not the right word, but to some extent it is the right word, because there is a mandate here in Belarus that we have to develop Belarusian players and win. We had struggled through that the year prior, and we really had to seize that opportunity. It wasn't easy because we weren't really dealing from a position of strength, in the sense that the team has had three losing seasons in a row. There was a little bit of a leap of faith for a lot of these guys. It took a lot of work from myself, [Mikhail] Grabovski and [Pavel] Perepekhin to really spend time with these guys, go to lunch with them, numerous phone calls, late evenings, sessions at the rink to show them what we could do to help build their skillsets. It was a long courtship for a lot of them. I give a lot of credit to those young guys for trusting us and then taking that leap of faith. And I give a lot of credit to the coaches, the coaching staff and management for delivering on what we said we would do for those players.
GK: Let’s start with Alexei Protas. What were some of the areas you committed to developing with him?
CW: I think first and foremost, we helped him to become a responsible, 200-foot player. We taught him about the importance of his play away from the puck. I'd like to believe that we held him accountable to a high level. We spent an awful lot of time building up his physical strength and his conditioning so that he could unleash and unlock his potential on the KHL platform. The opportunities that we provided him, you have to earn them—and he earned them. The opportunity to get powerplay time, to get time playing with some of our top players.
GK: And Vladimir Alistrov?
CW: He’s a young Belarusian player who has a high skill level, a very high hockey IQ. He has the ability to make plays and he has the ability to score, which is a unique asset. His biggest area for improvement is just his strength and conditioning as an athlete, and he's just a young player. It’s a huge step going from the Western Hockey League to the KHL, and I’d say the same thing for Protas. He just needs to physically mature and to spend a lot of time on strength and conditioning. I think that his future is very bright, if he's willing to put the work in on himself.
GK: Brennan Menell posted a league-leading performance in his KHL debut. Did you expect that kind of dominance from him?
CW: One of the only hesitations I had with Brennan Menell was that we were bringing over such a young specialist. Knowing how important the imports are to the team here in Minsk, a lot of times you want to go with a proven player who has quite a bit of experience to draw upon to help them to be successful.
Brennan is from Minnesota, and if you know, Minnesota, it's the state of hockey. They think of themselves as the leaders in the hockey world, in the USA, and there's a certain type of player that comes out of Minnesota. Brennan is different—he left Minnesota at 15. He took a chance on himself and went to play in Omaha, in AAA hockey. He got out of the Minnesota system. He excelled there, and then I think he went to carve his teeth in Chicago. From there, he went to the Western Hockey League, which is an unconventional path for a Minnesota-born player. They're normally going up through the association hockey, and then they play for their high school.
What I liked about him is that he's always been gambling on himself and proving himself in foreign situations, from a young age. I talked to him and I said, "Listen, this is a great place for you to come and to continue to develop. It's a great platform. The KHL is a step-up from the American League. You've dominated there, you’ve dominated every league you've played in. Why don't you come here and dominate here?" I showed him some examples of other really good NHL defenseman—Mark Giordano from Calgary, Brian Rafalski, who was a U.S.-born defenseman. Those players had to earn their reputations in Europe.
GK: On this point of NHL aspirations, let’s face it—big individual performances inevitably attract attention. There will likely be sizable turnover on this team. Can the culture you’ve built withstand a major personnel shift?
CW: That’s the risk you run in our sort of setting. We're a small budget team. We don't have a lot of the means that some of these other clubs do, but what we can provide and what we've shown is development, opportunity. I think we'll be able to retain enough of the team to carry on that mentality—that we win in Minsk, we will win in Minsk, and this is a recipe we have to follow in order to do so. We want to retain as many of these players as we can, and the people that we look to replace some of these guys, we have to make sure that they are highly-motivated players that still have a lot to prove.
GK: When I was talking with Spooner earlier this season, we touched on your coaching preferences. He said you have a more North American style because you preach puck possession—which made me laugh, because of course that was a distinctly Soviet contribution to the game, and yet the Russian teams do not play that way. Have you had to temper your vision to suit the way some of these teams operate?
CW: It’s a good question. I would like to say that I have a hybrid approach to how I think the game needs to be played, whether you're comparing a North American style to a Russian style or a European style. If you really look at how hockey has evolved, I think that Canadians certainly have borrowed a lot of influence from the Russians. I think the Russians have borrowed a lot from how Canada plays and brought it into their game. And the Swedes and the Finns and the U.S., everybody’s contributed their own little styles. It’s really interesting because almost everybody tries to play the same way now in the international game.
There are little subtleties that are different. If I were to sum up Russian hockey—they want to spend as little time as possible in their own zone, they want to get the puck up the ice as fast as possible, and they want to counter punch it. They want to wait until you make mistakes and then use their speed and their skill off of your mistakes. That's a pretty general assessment of Russian hockey, but I think it's pretty accurate. If you watch a lot of teams play, like you just said, they rim the puck in their own zone, they chip it out, they use their speed, they try to push it on the attack. When they have a little possession, they try and stretch you out and move the puck up the ice as fast as possible. A lot of that is really different from most American hockey, for sure. It makes you think about the best approach to winning on any given night, given who you're playing and what their strengths are as a team.
Ryan alluded to you that I'm a puck possession guy. Yeah, I am. I'm an offensive-minded coach who believes that the best way to play is with the puck, and I've tried to create a system of play that allows all five players on the ice to be connected and involved, whether it's defensive zone, the neutral zone or the o-zone. Everybody is an option at all times. I think that is a good approach in this league.
I would also say that what I've learned over my time here is that you have to, against certain opponents, approach it like a game of pool. It's not so much what you take. It’s what you leave. If you are too aggressive, if you open your team up for their strengths—with all of the skill level in the KHL, it's dangerous. Over my time in the past two seasons, we really tried to come up with a style of play that lessened what we left the other team.
GK: I want to dial back to the World Championships in the Czech Republic, 2015. You were coaching Belarus, your brother Todd was on the bench for Switzerland, and your brother Jay was coaching Canada. What was it like for your entire family to be coaching different teams at Worlds?
CW: It was certainly an interesting time. I think that was the first time in any World Championships where three brothers had represented three different countries in the same tournament. Jay was on Canada, and they ended up winning the tournament. Todd was with Switzerland, and they had a good tournament. I was with Belarus, and we were able to have one of the better showings that the country had ever had at Worlds. Each of us had success in our own way, and it was a nice way for us to spend that time together.
GK: Todd described you as “the coach of coaches” in your family. What did you want to impart on your brothers from your own experience?
CW: I think they saw how passionate I was about details, how I really cared about player development. I cared about the players that I was working with all the time, and I communicated a lot. I think that would be a strong point amongst all of us. We’re good communicators. We're service based. We are there to serve the players and to help them realize their goals individually and collectively. I ask myself, “What can I do for these guys today to help them be successful?” And that's really, I think, an approach that I've tried to take always. I know it’s the same approach Todd and Jay take, and hopefully, maybe they learned some of that from me. They've also been around really good coaches too, and they've been impacted by those other coaches as well.
GK: Out of pure curiosity—you’ve referenced playing possession hockey, the five-man unit approach, even the language of being a servant, of service. These are all things that remind of Anatoly Tarasov’s pedagogy. Have you studied him?
CW: You know, it's interesting—I haven't done a lot of research on him, but I think he's probably one of the most influential coaches this sport has ever seen. Complete innovator, way ahead of his time. To get those [Soviet] players to play the beautiful game that they played—it was amazing. For me personally, these are all things I think that I've learned over time, whether its been in business, in life, or through the many teams that I've played on, the good and bad coaches that I've been with.
Tarasov was light-years ahead of what people were doing, and it's still now trying to be followed. If you look at the puck possession game, that's what everybody's talking about in the NHL now. That's what he was inventing, what, in the 1950s and 60s? The manner in which he was doing it—he was almost scripting and screenwriting plays and movements. Like a ballet.
GK: Well, on the subject of ballet—you coached your team mascot to dance-off perfection earlier this season. Any future in choreography for you?
CW: Well, all I can say is that there are some creative minds in that marketing department for our team! They thought it would be funny if I could make a cameo in their production. You do whatever you can to help out the organization in any way possible, and that was a fun way to do it. It's a side of me that I don't think a lot of people see sometimes. They think that I'm super serious and I'm always intense, but if people really knew me, they’d understand that there's a very funny side to me. A side that likes to joke around all the time and likes to have fun