No matter the field, sometimes getting an outsider’s perspective can shine a light on what’s working, what’s not and lead to fresh, new ways of thinking and doing things. When that outsider was also once an insider, that point of view comes with a unique credibility.
On the subject of the “Minnesota model,” University of Vermont men’s hockey head coach Todd Woodcroft is one of those highly respected insider-outsiders. Woodcroft grew up in hockey-crazed Toronto and has led the Catamounts the last two seasons in Burlington. In between, one of Woodcroft’s career stops was a five-year stint in St. Paul with the expansion Minnesota Wild, for which he served as video coach and a scout, among other roles.
His years in Minnesota established a deep respect for the State of Hockey – both the passion fans have for the game, and the approach to youth player development and the community-based model, which are often touted as standards for programs across the country.
“I didn’t know anything about Minnesota hockey when I got here,” he said. “I was a fan of the North Stars, so I remembered those great teams in the 1980s – Payne, Christoff, Giles, Broten – that was my first impression of Minnesota hockey.
“Then you get here and walk around the Xcel Energy Center and see all the high school jerseys, and you quickly realize there’s a rich hockey culture here with strong traditions, similar to what I experienced in Toronto. The tradition isn’t just about the professional team. Fans celebrate the college teams and the high school teams and women’s and girls’ hockey. It’s almost a more pure model of hockey development here because the focus is really on the amateurs.”
Commitment to the Game
When people in the game talk about Minnesota and what sets its hockey culture apart, what is often mentioned are things like opportunity, access to ice, community investment, six Division I men’s and women’s college teams, an incredibly supportive NHL squad and a high school state tournament scene that is unlike any other in the country.
In addition to those aspects, what stands out to Woodcroft may be summed up in one word: commitment. It’s a commitment to development, a commitment to great coaching and a commitment to community that makes the Minnesota model so special.
“The enjoyment of the amateur game here is sincere, and there’s a genuine appreciation of the game,” he said. “Kids understand the ultimate is to play for your hometown, your high school and make the tourney. You can sit in any watering hole and hear people talk about great players and great tournament memories of the past.
“And I think the coaching here is the best in the country. They truly care. The game is just so ingrained in the culture here.”
Celebrating the Community-based Model
According to Woodcroft, the community-based model works so well in Minnesota because it’s about the community supporting teams and individual players, and those players in turn caring about representing their hometowns and learning how to carry themselves and treat people off the ice as well – in school and in the community.
“It’s more than just being fans, it’s financial support and emotional support as well,” he says. “These are young boys and girls who have chosen to play a game. It will be rewarding to them, but if you don’t have that village of people who care about them, I don’t think they’ll have as much fun or as much success.
“You go to places like Roseau or Virginia or Eveleth or Hermantown, they know the players. They take care of the players. And I love that. That’s why growth of the game is so strong. These players who move up have little brothers and sisters that want to be just like their older siblings and have the same experience.”
Minnesota-born Players Respected
Woodcroft’s belief in the Minnesota model is evidenced by Vermont’s roster. In his first season, the roster he inherited didn’t have any Minnesotans. Two players from the state (Robbie Stucker/St. Paul and Luke Mountain/Woodbury) were on his Vermont roster in 2021-22, with more players (Alex Bump/Prior Lake, Ryder Donovan/Duluth, Max Strand/Roseau) committed to join the program soon.
“I don’t have enough Minnesota players – I need more,” Woodcroft said. “Celebrating college hockey and wanting to be part of it is in the DNA of the Minnesota player.”