Searching for an answer about Doug Woog’s personality, Bob Motzko hesitated, then summed it up succinctly.
“The Wooger,’’ Motzko said. “He was just a people person.’’
The Wooger, indeed.
Motzko, the Gophers men’s hockey coach, on Monday held a news conference to discuss Woog, who coached the Gophers from 1985 through 1999 and who died Saturday at 75 after battling Parkinson’s disease and other ailments. The theme throughout Motzko’s remarks, and those of others, was how giving Woog was of his time and how he’d talk hockey with anyone.
“I’m not sure that you couldn’t get in a debate that he’s one of the greatest ambassadors of Gopher hockey of all time,’’ Motzko said. “He started as a player, then he goes on to become a legendary coach and one of most successful coaches of all time in college hockey, and then he seamlessly walks into broadcasting, where he was a natural.
“Then you really got to see a guy enjoy the sport in promoting not just the University of Minnesota, but hockey, the old WCHA throughout the state,’’ Motzko added. “He became an iconic figure of the people for the sport of hockey.’’
As a young hockey coach just learning his trade with the North Iowa Huskies of the U.S. Hockey League in 1986, Motzko needed some practice drills for his team. So, he’d make the drive from Mason City, Iowa, to watch and learn from Woog’s Gophers practices.
“Maybe the third or fourth practice, he leaves the ice and crawls up into the stands – in his skates – to sit next to me. ‘Hey, young fella. What are you doing?’ ’’ Motzko said of Woog. “I told him who I was. … He and I, after that, had countless meetings, all talking hockey.
“The real story,’’ Motzko said, “is I’ll bet there are countless other high school coaches, youth coaches, college coaches who will tell you the same story.’’
Scott Bell would fall into the category Motzko described. The Inver Grove Heights native and former Simley standout always wanted to be a Gopher. He would attend camps held by Woog, of neighboring South St. Paul, and was impressed by the coach. “He was very approachable,’’ Bell said. “You go to his camps, and he’s on the ice. He was involved and made you feel good.’’
When it came time to pick a college, Bell expressed his desire to wear the maroon and gold. Problem was, Woog wasn’t convinced. “I’d call him all the time and say, ‘Wooger, I want to be a Gopher,’ ’’ Bell said. “He’d always tell me I wasn’t good enough.’’
Woog made Bell a deal. If Bell received a scholarship offer from another school, they’d talk. When armed with multiple offers, Bell asked again.
“He said, ‘I always thought you were a better soccer player than hockey player.’ He’d say stuff like that. … He had a good sense of humor. I think he liked me because I was a worker and from his neck of the woods.’’
Woog relented, and Bell would go on to serve two seasons as the Gophers captain in the mid-1990s, though he wasn’t immune to his coach’s tough love.
“He was probably harder on me than most players. Maybe he knew I had pretty thick skin,’’ said Bell, who went on to be head coach at Hamline and assistant with the Gophers and now is a scout with the Toronto Maple Leafs. “He was always on me about how bad a hockey player I was. Larry Olimb told him one time, ‘Coach, he’s not that bad.’ He’d say things like, ‘Hey, if Bell can do this stuff, all you guys should be able to do this.’ ’’
Bell was especially appreciative of Woog’s commitment to Minnesota players. From the 1987-88 season on, his Gophers rosters were comprised of entirely of Minnesotans.
“We had a pretty good bond. We both wanted to win, we both loved Gopher hockey and we both loved that it was all-Minnesota,’’ Bell said. “That’s one thing I always liked about Wooger: He gave Minnesota kids a chance and gave an identity to the program. It was a special place.’’
A hockey innovator
Motzko also saw another side to Woog – a coach who was ahead of his time.
“When he was with the [USHL’s St. Paul] Vulcans, they were like the Philadelphia Flyers. They were the goon squad, they were tough,’’ Motzko said. “Then when he got to Minnesota, he became an artist in how he coached the neutral zone and transition, activating defensemen. A lot of that is part of hockey today. He was far ahead of his time as an innovator, especially in the transition game.’’
He saw that up-close during a USA Hockey all-star event in East Lansing, Mich., when Woog held an impromptu coaching clinch in a bar. Motzko and former Gophers captain Kevin Hartzell were among the students.
“For the next two hours, on little napkins, he just wrote drills,’’ Motzko said. “As he would write a drill and slide it and get a new, clean napkin, I would put them all in my pocket. When I got back to my room that night, I had 50 napkins of drills and transitions in my pocket.’’
But for all Woog did as a coach – six Frozen Four trips and 12 NCAA tournament berths in 14 years speak loudly – his personable nature impressed Motzko the most. He recalled a Wild game during the early 2000s when he saw Woog at the Xcel Energy Center.
“Doug’s walking through the corridor, and it was just, ‘Wooger! Wooger!’ Just chants, all the way as he’s walking, and he’s acknowledging everyone, waving, going over shaking hands,’’ Motzko said. “He was in his element.’’