The Washington Capitals made a good decision on Monday. By hiring Barry Trotz as their new head coach, the Caps got a guy who has an uncanny ability to get something out of nothing.
After all, during 15 seasons as head coach of the Nashville Predators, Trotz took a team with few stars and little money and made them a perennial playoff contender. Teams that had no business playing in the post-season were almost willed into the playoffs by Trotz’s ability to make chicken salad out of, well, you know.
On Monday, the 51-year-old Trotz, became the 17th coach in Capitals In Nashville, he was the longest-tenured coach in the NHL and the only coach in Predators history. Trotz ranks third in games coached (1,196) and wins (557) with a single franchise. He ranks 15th on the NHL coaching victories list and fourth among active coaches behind Joel Quenneville (706 with Chicago), Ken Hitchcock (657 with St. Louis) and Lindy Ruff (611 with Dallas).
Trotz will replace Adam Oates who was fired April 25. The Capitals were 38-30-14, ninth in the Eastern Conference, and did not make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
What the Capitals see in Trotz is an ability to get the very best out of his players, something the Caps brass do not believe they got from Oates.
“Predator hockey had a certain DNA,” Trotz told me recently. “To win, we had to have everybody contribute. That’s the only way we could be successful. We couldn’t afford passengers. Everybody on the roster had to contribute every night.”
Certainly the mavens of the NHL knew the players who toiled for Trotz and the Predators. However, for the average North American hockey fan, last season’s Preds made up one of the game’s greatest collection’s of no-names: Nick Spaling, Craig Smith, Rich Clune, Victor Bartley, Kevin Klein, Carter Hutton, Matt Hendricks, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis (he’s an actor, isn’t he?).
None of those guys conjures up thoughts of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Alex Ovechkin or Joe Thornton. If the Preds had a “superstar” it’s Shea Weber and he’s a defenseman. If there is a lunch bucket team in the NHL, it’s the Predators. And the man who was truly responsible for the team’s success was (a) the fiercest looking coach in the NHL and (b) the nicest man in the game today.
For those who don’t know him, Barry Trotz was born in Dauphin, Man., in 1962, and like most young boys in small-town Western Manitoba, he played hockey.
He spent three seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats and then went to the University of Manitoba where he still believed he could make it to the NHL one day.
Trouble was, he’d been injured in the off-season when he was 19 and the pain just wouldn’t go away.
“I hurt my back in the summer of 1982 and it just never got better,” Trotz told MHN. “It was my lower-back and I tried to play through the pain for a year at the U of M, but I just couldn’t do it. It got so bad that I could barely walk. With some rest, I tried to go out to training camp the next year, hoping I could get back by Christmas, but I had nothing. It wasn’t coming around and then one day, the head coach at the U of M, the late Wayne Fleming, asked me to become his assistant.”
The next season Trotz took over as coach and general manager of his hometown Manitoba Junior Hockey League club, the Dauphin Kings, but then moved back to the U of M as a 26-year-old head coach while Fleming went to Europe on a sabbatical. When Fleming returned, Trotz stayed on as his assistant and picked up a side job as a regional scout with the Washington Capitals.
In 1990, the Capitals asked him to join their farm team, the Baltimore Skipjacks of the AHL as an assistant and Trotz jumped at the chance. He eventually became the team’s head coach and when the Skipjacks folded, he took a job as head coach of the AHL franchise in Portland, Me. There, he won a Calder Cup, and when his old boss, former Caps GM Poile became the first GM of the Nashville Predators, he immediately hired Trotz as his first head coach.
“Barry is the fairest-minded, most honest coach in the game,” Poile once said. “His players love him and will do anything for him because there are no mind games, no favorites, no phoniness. Barry Trotz is a very good human being and as a result, an extremely good coach.”
Trotz was one of just six coaches in all four major North American sports leagues to have coached or managed each of a team’s first 14 seasons of existence (MLB: Connie Mack (50, Oakland); NFL: Curly Lambeau (29, Green Bay), Tom Landry (29, Dallas), Hank Stram (15, Kansas City), Paul Brown (15, Cleveland)), and one of just four coaches in expansion-team history (among the four major sports) to have a record better than .500.
In the meantime, Trotz tried to make hockey work in a non-traditional hockey market that always had trouble drawing fans. In fact, in recent years it was one of those franchises that might be sold to an owner who wanted to re-locate the club to Minsk. Or Quebec City.
Remember, not too long ago the Predators lost a co-owner, Bootsie Del Biaggio, to an eight-year jail sentence for fraud. This franchise has, historically, been a mess and financially, it’s just coming out of the 2008 recession. According to Forbes Magazine, the Predators are the 25th most valuable team in the NHL (worth an estimated $163 million) and the owners have been forced to pump $60 million of their own money into the franchise just to pay the bills.
But through it all, the head coach from Dauphin, Man., has always had faith that his team won’t quit and every year, he comes to camp believing, deep in his heart, that his annual collection of would-bes, never-weres and has-beens would be resilient enough to overcome all the off-ice distractions and play like true professionals.
“Resilient. That was another part of our identity,” said Trotz, “We were kind of a hockey version of Major League, the old baseball movie with all the misfits and cast-offs.”
Nobody knows resiliency or winning better than Barry Trotz. That’s why last season was so tough on him. The Preds weren’t winning and the team he had didn’t appear as if it would start winning.
That led to his dismissal and now his new opportunity. On Monday, the Washington Capitals got one of the best hockey coaches in the world. His presence will make a team that has often been labeled “an underachiever” one of the next threats in the East.