Lou Vairo first crossed paths with Doug Woog in 1975 in the United States Hockey League (USHL).
For three years, the two battled: Vairo the head coach for the Austin (Minnesota) Mavericks and Woog his counterpart for the St. Paul Vulcans. By the second season as rivals, the two started to become friends.
“I respected him as a fierce competitor and a good hockey coach, a good man,” Vairo said. “I learned some things from Doug. I enjoyed our battles. Little by little, we became more friendly and less hostile, but we both competed hard.”
That was the start of a friendship that lasted nearly 45 years. Vairo, now USA Hockey’s director of special projects, was saddened when he heard Woog passed away Dec. 14 at the age of 75.
Woog — nicknamed “Wooger” — had a storied career as a hockey player and coach. He was a first-team all-state selection for three years and led South St. Paul High School to the state tournament four years before attending the University of Minnesota. He became a first-team All-American at the hockey-rich college and was selected for the U.S. Men’s National team in 1967.
After his playing career wrapped up, Woog was an assistant coach for the Minnesota Junior Stars under Herb Brooks. In 1973, Woog took over as the Vulcans coach.
For two seasons in the mid-1970s, Frank Serratore, who has been the Air Force men’s hockey coach for the past 23 seasons, was coached by Woog.
“He was young at the time; he was only in his early 30s,” said Serratore. “When you’re 18 years old and he’s in his 30s, that seems old, but he wasn’t. He was probably still a little more player than he was coach. In those days you better have some fire in your belly to play for the Wooger, because he was a competitor. He was fiery, but we loved it because you wanted to play for a guy who [cared], and he truly did.”
Brian Peterson / Star Tribune
Serratore called Woog a player’s coach. Still a great skater in his 30s, Woog would routinely hop onto the ice during practice and put shots on his goalies, including Serratore.
Serratore could spend hours rehashing stories about his former coach and mentor. One of Serratore’s favorite memories happened during his second season with the Vulcans. He was the only returning goalie and felt like he was in a pretty good position as the clear-cut No. 1 for Woog’s squad. Vairo, while with the rival Mavericks, tried to trade for Serratore, but Woog wasn’t going to give him up.
“I remember I was having a tough period and Doug wasn’t happy,” Serratore recalled. “I remember standing up and just saying, ‘Hey, if you don’t want me, trade me.’ He just looks at me and he goes, ‘Trade you? We don’t need any tape,’ and then he walked out. And the boys in the room erupted in laughter. Just a witty, funny way of putting his goalie in his place a little bit. So, the rest of the year it was, ‘Hey, Frank, did you bring the tape? You better bring the tape or we’re going to have to trade you.’”
Serratore and his teammates knew early on in Woog’s coaching career he would go on to become a well-decorated coach at a high level.
“He matter-of-factly had that ‘it factor,’ there was no doubt,” Serratore said. “Talk to any of his former players, we knew it as players and you know it when you see it. We knew that we had a high-level coach that we got to work with every day. It was just a matter of time that someone recognized that and gave him a chance because he actually went back to high school and coached South St. Paul for a while after coaching juniors.”
Woog’s ability as a coach caught the eye of USA Hockey, where he served in many capacities throughout the years. In 1982, Woog was an assistant coach for the U.S. National Junior Team. Leading up to the 1984 Olympic Winter Games, Vairo was asked to coach the U.S. and he was able to hand-pick his assistants. Woog was at the top of his list.
“I needed a strong assistant coach who wouldn’t agree with everything and make me prove what I’m thinking is right,” Vairo said. “He had lots of responsibility, and he filled that role beautifully.”
Larry Johnson was the GM of that 1984 Olympic team and loved having Woog on board. He remembers his friend as a great hockey mind.
“I used to sit up in the stands with Woogie during some of our games and he used to break down opposing teams’ forecheck and systems, and I’ve never seen anything so fast in my life,” Johnson said. “In the first two minutes, he had their systems down and what they were doing. It was amazing.”
Woog’s stints with USA Hockey propelled him into getting hired as the head coach at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, in 1985. Woog had a successful run, logging winning seasons 12 of his 14 years. He brought the Gophers to the Frozen Four six times, placing third twice and national runner-up in 1989, losing to Harvard 4-3 in overtime in St. Paul.
Woog finished with 388 career wins, now second on the all-time list at Minnesota but first when he retired.
“He was a great hockey man and a great hockey coach,” Vairo said.
Woog’s final season on the bench was 1998-99; he was elected into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in ’02.
Woog had an enormous, lasting impact on hockey not just in Minnesota but throughout the country during his nearly 30 years behind the bench.
“Everybody knows who Doug Woog is,” Vairo said. “He’s affected and touched many, many lives. I’m one of them. I’m proud to have worked with him, coached against him and to know him. I’ll always be proud of that. He became one of my favorite people in the sport.”
Said Johnson: “I know Dougie will be missed.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.