Like anyone else whose life was touched by Doug Woog, former Gophers player Casey Hankinson has a million stories to tell.
“I’ve got so many that I started writing them down, and then there was another one, and another one and and another one,” Hankinson said over the phone Monday morning. “Some you could share and some you could not.”
We laughed together over some of the mostly shareable ones Monday, a fitting tribute to “Wooger” — and a way to ease the sadness over the news Saturday that he had died at age 75 after dealing for years with various health problems, including Parkinson’s disease.
Hankinson’s memories go back far into childhood, when his older brothers Peter and Ben skated for Woog’s Gophers on the 1989 Frozen Four team at the St. Paul Civic Center. At a practice before the semifinal game, 10-year-old Casey found his way onto the ice as well.
“He invited me to skate with the team,” Hankinson said. “I wore a pair of Paul Broten’s old skates that were five sizes too big. He was just so warm and welcoming.”
From the jump, Hankinson wanted to play for Woog and the Gophers. The summer before his senior year at Edina High, that dream seemed to evaporate.
“I still remember Doug calling the house in August and telling me that he didn’t think I would fit in and be a Gopher,” Hankinson said. “I came into the house just crushed.”
But an even lower point in February of his senior season turned out to be a turning point.
“Our section semifinal game my senior year against Wayzata, we lost. I remembered so badly wanting to win the game. I was in the locker room, tears in my eyes, and when I came out (Woog) was sitting there on a bench,” Hankinson recalled. “I wasn’t even looking until he got my attention. And he said, ‘Casey, anybody that plays as hard as you played, I need to have on my team.’ He told me he wasn’t even planning to go that night but he stopped because he figured he should watch me one more time.”
Thus began a four-year career for the Gophers in which Hankinson amassed 106 points. I got to know Hankinson and Woog quite well during the 1996-97 season, Hankinson’s junior year, when I covered the team at The Minnesota Daily. It was the biggest beat I had covered at the time, and the team was full of characters — with Hankinson and Woog near the top of the list.
(Photo above is from Hankinson’s senior year, with Woog providing practice instruction. Hankinson is in the background, in the blue jersey, with his visor up).
I’ll never forget Woog describing freshman Dave Spehar as “cute and fun,” nor will I get over his long, rambling and ultimately always thoughtful answers to questions (including one in which Woog tried to explain the physical implications of playing in the thin air against Colorado College).
In practice one day that season during a week without a game, Hankinson convinced backup goalie Willy Marvin to switch gear with him — letting Hankinson put on the pads while Marvin skated out in Hankinson’s jersey.
“Guys are warming me up with shots, and Woog is on poor Willy because he thinks it’s me,” Hankinson said. “He’s saying, ‘Come on, Hank, pick it up, pick it up. Geez, Hank, what is wrong with you?’ Finally after about 30 minutes, he goes over and he’s right in Willy’s face. And I’m like oh no. He’s hot. We thought we were going to get in trouble. And then Wooger just laughed and said, ‘Oh! What a great prank!’ He could just go with the flow.”
But Woog could also be demanding and voice his displeasure — though even that often had a shake-your-head-and-laugh quality to it.
“I remember one time we were playing against Denver, and Charlie Wasley and I made a bad line change. And Woog was screaming at us to get off the ice, get out of here,” Hankinson said. “We were like, ‘It’s the middle of the game, where are we supposed to go?’ He told us to go to the locker room. So we’re sitting in the locker room, we’re watching the game on TV, and next thing we know Woog comes into the locker room, screams at us, tells us never to make a bad change like that again, then tells us to go play hockey.”
Woog’s on-ice coaching legacy is probably one of tremendous regular seasons that came up short of the ultimate goal. He made it to six Frozen Fours, but his Gophers never won a title — the biggest heartbreak being the aforementioned 1989 team that lost in overtime to Harvard in the title game just minutes after Randy Skarda hit the post on what would’ve been the winner.
That 1996-97 team I covered ended up being Woog’s last trip to the NCAA tournament, and another season that ended short of the goal (with a region final loss to Michigan). After two seasons out of the tournament — the only two of his 14-year Gophers career — Woog was replaced by Don Lucia.
“He was a really smart hockey mind and an absolutely creative coach,” said Hankinson, 43, who went on to play 18 career NHL games and is now a senior vice president with Ryan Companies in Minneapolis. “After my career was over, I was listening to him doing analysis on an FSN game. I called him later and told him what a smart hockey mind he was. And he joked that he wished I would have listened to him more when I was a player.”
Hankinson has two daughters (ages 14 and 13) an 8-year-old son. One of his daughters played hockey a few years back against one of Woog’s granddaughters — a memory Hankinson calls “really special” and just one way he stayed in touch with his old coach.
“He was one of those guys that you just intentionally kept in contact with. You loved spending time with him. He was like an additional family member. He was the Wooger,” Hankinson said. “I’m sad now and I’m going be sad later, but thinking about all those memories makes me smile.”