05/12/2009 - As seen in the game program
Jeff Fishbein, BEARS Staff Writer
He's played in Hershey twice, winning a Calder Cup on his second trip through town. He coached a championship squad here, too — not to mention winning a Kelly Cup, and a Murphy Cup.
"Roller hockey was a pretty neat experience. At the time it was really big and there were a lot of fans watching," said Hershey coach Bob Woods, talking about his time with Anaheim in Roller Hockey International.
"It was really a nice opportunity to, No. 1, make some extra cash, but also to keep yourself in shape and keep competing," he said. "We got to see a lot of different cities and places and it was a neat experience for the family as well."
That's just one of the unusual bumps in the road that led this native of LeRoy, Saskatchewan, to his current position behind the Bears bench.
Barrel-chested and square-jawed like a stereotypical Marine, the team's 23rd leader has a youthful smile that belies his 40 years. He looks as if he could lace up and play in the AHL today.
A 10th-round pick for the New Jersey Devils in 1988, Woods went straight to that team's AHL affiliate in Utica, N.Y., to begin his professional career. He was shared between Utica and Johnstown in his second year, then spent three more seasons as a Chief. In that third year, he played 28 regular season games and 11 playoff games with another AHL club — the HERSHEY BEARS.
"It was a great experience. From my days in Utica, I knew Hershey was a great place to play and they were always tough to play against," Woods recalls. "Jay (Leach) treated me great and gave me an opportunity maybe some guys wouldn't have. He probably got himself in trouble sometimes playing me above some of the Flyer prospects."
It wasn't lost on Woods that he now had pulled on a hockey sweater in two memorable Pennsylvania cities, with two teams that had a wealth of hockey history behind them. Both towns are welcoming, he says — but both are demanding.
"I was (in Johnstown) for parts of four years, and my wife and I always talk about it as some of the best times we've ever had," he said. "Guys are pretty tight, it's a small community and you seem to do a lot together. You always had the diehard fans who knew the hockey."
That didn't change when Woods made the move east down the Turnpike.
"That's probably the biggest thing here ... in Hershey, there's so much knowledge of the game," he said. (The fans) know the game. They understand what's going on out there. When you can play for two organizations like that ... that have a lot of history and memories, it's fun."
Woods came back to Central Pennsylvania four years and four teams later. He did a short stint in Austria, but mostly played in the ECHL — in fact, that's where he played most of his career. His return to Chocolate Town gave him the chance to play under Bob Hartley as the BEARS looked for their eighth Calder Cup. That gave Woods a chance to gain knowledge that would be crucial in the current stage of his career. "Bob Hartley was a great teacher, very detailed. Even though I was 29 years old at the time I still was able to absorb a lot of knowledge from him, stuff that I was later able to use in my coaching," Woods said. "When you get into coaching, you go back and take little things from everybody you played for and put them into your ways. I've been fortunate enough that things have worked well."
After that season, Woods said he knew he wanted to continue his career behind the bench. He still wanted to play — in fact, he still wanted to play in Hershey — but there wasn't a spot for him on the roster. He went back to the ECHL, to Tallahassee, where he first was given the title of player-coach. Except for 11 games with the IHL's Fort Wayne Komets, Woods remained at the "AA" level for the rest of his playing days.
Barely settled into Florida, Woods got a call from Hershey, but took a pass in the name of family stability. That decision was apparently the right one, because he's been a coach in one form or another ever since. Getting started in management wasn't always easy, he admits, because he still was skating.
"The toughest thing is you're still sitting there in the dressing room beside guys. There has to be a line that you're still a player, but you're actually getting more into the coaching," he said. "You'd be sitting beside guys knowing they could possibly be traded, not play that night. It was tough."
Woods finished his ECHL career in Mississippi, a place he says to this day was one of his favorites, a place his family still misses. His first year there, the team won the Kelly Cup. As both a player and assistant coach, the man he answered to was Bruce Boudreau, who had taken the fledgling team to the playoffs two of the first three years it existed.
"It's all history from there," Woods said, laughing. "We worked very well together. I heard a lot of good things about Bruce and I knew they were going to have a good team. It was one of the best moves I ever made."
He said the same for his reunion with Boudreau here in Hershey.
"We have good memories of a lot of good people and friends we made, and the connection we made with Bruce which later on would turn into this situation," he explained.
Before he came back, Woods got the top job in Biloxi, going to the playoffs all four seasons, and to the semifinals once, losing there to the eventual champion, the now-defunct Greenville Grrrowl. The team Woods left behind didn't get to play again for another two years, falling victim to Hurricane Katrina. Another former Bear, Steffon Walby, brought the franchise back to life last season.
Coming here, Woods and Boudreau took over a club that just changed affiliation. Both Hershey and Portland, where the players last laced up, struggled prior to 2005.
"We needed to make them believe that they were as good as we knew they could be. We just changed the whole mindset," Woods explained. "Once you got them bought in to what we were preaching and showed them some success ... the sky was the limit. I think that's what led to a championship."
The dynamic duo of AHL coaching took the BEARS back to the finals a year later, but couldn't close the deal against a powerful Hamilton team. Last season's campaign began with a struggle — actually, with two struggles: Hershey's problems on ice were mirrored by those in Washington, and a home loss by the Capitals to Atlanta the day before Thanksgiving was, in Woods' words, a harbinger of what was to come.
"We knew things weren't going well up there. We didn't think they were going to be able to wait too long," he said. "By no means did we think it was going to happen that way."
"That way," in this case, was the "Thanksgiving Day Massacre" that sent Boudreau to the District of Columbia and gave Woods his second head coaching job. Both made their debuts at Philadelphia's Wachovia Center on Black Friday.
Both teams won, setting the tone for a huge improvement on the part of the NHL club, and a solid performance in the months that followed for Hershey. When the season ended, Boudreau's title was made permanent in Washington after he won the Jack Adams Trophy and his team won a division title and made the playoffs.
There was some speculation that Woods really would be an interim coach in Hershey, and would join his old friend.
"We don't make those decisions. People up above, that's their job," he said late last season. "All we can do is take care of what we're supposed to take care of, and that's all we're focusing on right now."
Woods' focus got the Bears into the playoffs — barely — and the campaign ended after just one postseason round. He'll be looking to improve on that this year as the team's head coach — without the interim tag.
Still, Woods admits he'd be lying if he said a Stanley Cup wasn't his next goal. Of course, he'll gladly take another Calder Cup.
"There are a lot of guys that play and never get the chance. So I'm very fortunate," he said. "Once you get a taste of winning nothing else is as good." Off the ice, Woods is in many ways a balance to Boudreau, whose passion is legendary and who can deliver fire and brimstone in the locker room or the press room. Woods, on the other hand, keeps his emotions in check, except perhaps at practice, where only the players will hear him.
"Your players, you know they're not going to be great every night. I've got to try to stay positive, probably more positive than I'd like to be just because we are a team down here, we have to stick together," he said.
And then he adds, "Trust me, there's a lot of fire that comes out of me. Just ask the guys."
Woods admits he benefited from circumstances, what with the growth of the AHL and ECHL surrounding the collapse of the IHL. He had to get out of the game a little sooner than he wanted, and in doing so, got behind the bench a little faster than he envisioned. He says he enjoyed winning titles as a coach, although he compares it to watching his kids open their presents at Christmas.
"It was always more fun playing. Nothing beats playing. You've got to play until you can't anymore," he said. "There's nothing (that can) beat when you're actually out there competing with your teammates, sweating and bleeding and banged up and stuff."