"Mr. Keenan, can we get you to sign?" the husband asked as he and his wife stuck out their pens.
"Sorry," Barry Trotz, told them, but he wasn't Mike Keenan.
Rather than walk off in an Iron Mike-ian huff, the NHL's second-longest-tenured coach relaxed the embarrassed couple and their child with some pleasant small talk. They no doubt will never misidentify the coach of the Nashville Predators again, though maybe not for reasons that Trotz would love.
"I have one of those faces that you're not going to forget. Kids are scared of me. No, they are," Trotz says with a laugh, hours before his Predators were to face the lowly Colorado Avalanche in Denver. "I have that look like I'm going to tear your head off. As a younger guy, I think I had that look even more and had a reputation for being in your face a lot, but as I've gotten older I think I've filtered some of that out."
"The Face" might actually be a good nickname for Trotz -- instead, his is the hockey standard of just adding an "ie" at the end of a last name and leaving it at that -- because nobody has personified hockey in Nashville more than this 48-year-old married father of four. No, really. Nobody at all.
In a league that has seen more than 150 coaches lose their jobs since Trotz came to Nashville in 1998 -- including the aforementioned Keenan (with four different teams) -- he remains the one and only coach in Predators history. Only Buffalo's Lindy Ruff has coached one team more years in succession, which is even more remarkable considering: 1) Trotz's first five years on the job were all losing seasons and 2) Nashville has never won a playoff series.
In the last 10 years, three coaches who actually won Stanley Cups -- Bob Hartley, John Tortorella and Peter Laviolette -- were fired by their teams not long after. Several others who took teams to the Cup final in that span -- Michel Therrien, Craig MacTavish, Paul Maurice -- have also been canned. But still, somehow, Trotz continues to be one of Nashville's longest running shows on Broadway (the name of the street on which the Predators' arena has sat since their addition to the NHL as an expansion franchise in 1998).
How does he do it? First and foremost, by making the Preds a winner.
This will be Trotz's seventh straight winning season. The Preds stood at 40-25-10 entering the game with Colorado, which they won, 3-2, to move into the sixth playoff seed in the Western Conference. Second, he continues to be compared to the great chef who can whip up a gourmet meal with the barest of cupboards.
Despite a payroll that ranks 21st in the league, despite a team whose leading scorers (forward Martin Erat and defenseman Shea Weber) topped out at 46 points entering Thursday, the Predators were a good bet to make the playoffs in the tougher-than-an-old-catcher's-mitt west.
While playing almost 11 seasons in Ottawa for five coaches, forward Mike Fisher never understood the fuss about Trotz. After playing for him since February, Fisher says, "Now I know why he's been here so long. He and the whole staff, they really get us focused for every game. We're always so well prepared, and he does such a great job of communicating to guys as far as what he wants out of them, and their roles. That part of being a coach is so important. Guys have to know their roles. He's very, very good at that."
A look around the Predators' dressing room on Thursday provided confirmation of what Fisher is talking about. In black magic marker on portable white greaseboards are detailed pointers on how to play that night's opponent. This is nothing to stop the presses about, but a lot of coaches scribble generic maxims on game nights ("Finish your checks!", "No passengers tonight!") that might cause players to roll their eyes. Trotz has written out more opponent-specific instructions, and he believes that every game needs a fresh plan.
And yet, the ingredients for the night's preparations are wrapped in an all-encompassing coda that Trotz-watchers have labeled "The Predator Way."
"He makes you want to work for each other. I guess family is the right word. He makes you feel like you're part of a family," says goalie Pekka Rinne, a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy this season, with his .929 saves percentage, 2.10 goals-against average, and six shutouts. "I guess that sounds like a bit of a cliché, but it really is the way it is here."
Trotz may be anonymous to much of the sporting fandom in the U.S., and for too long that might have even held true in Nashville. Despite a playoff season last year, the Predators sold out only 87.5 percent of their home games (average attendance: 14,979). But with a new ownership structure similar to that of the Green Bay Packers -- Predators Holdings LLC, a group of several local businesspeople currently chaired by Tom Cigarran -- and a new marketing group led by noted sports/arena-management executives Sean Henry and Jeff Cogen, Bridgestone Arena has been filled to 93.5-percent capacity (16,075) so far this season. Trotz and star players such as Weber, Rinne and Ryan Suter still may not be as well known locally as Vince Gill or Kenny Chesney, but they're getting there.
Says Trotz, "When I go back home to Canada (he's a native of Dauphin, Manitoba,) people will say, 'Well, how can you have a hockey team in Nashville?' And I tell 'em, 'well, just come to Nashville. For a period, there was talk of us leaving town and our corporate base wasn't as good as we needed it to be. But what's happened is the local ownership group has taken over, and just by them coming in and saying 'We're not going anywhere' has put investment into the fans. There's a bond now, I would say. A nontraditional hockey market is turning into more of a traditional market. We're now a fabric of Nashville. If we ever have a deep (playoff run) our city will go crazy."
Therein lies the pressure Trotz and his Predators face as the postseason nears. For all the feel-good, overachieving underdog-style press that Trotz and the team have gotten the last few years, the fact remains that they are 0-5 in playoff series under his watch. If coaches who won Cups can be fired after first-round exits, how does Trotz keep getting rehired? Put another way, has his seeming college professor-tenure aura created an atmosphere where players somehow underachieve in the playoffs because they might not think their coach is under the same pressure as them?
"No, that's not it," says Rinne, who was part of a disappointing first-round loss to Chicago last year, a six-game series that saw Nashville blow a 4-3 lead in the final minute of rubber match Game 5, despite being on the power play when Patrick Kane scored with 13.5 seconds left in regulation. "Barry is a great coach, who has gotten the most out of us. But of course, there's pressure on everyone here. We don't want to be just a team that makes the playoffs. We need to win in the playoffs now too. It's up to us now, and I think we're ready to get rid of that image and be taken a little bit more seriously now. Now, I think it's our time."
If it turns out that way, Barry Trotz will be as recognizable as Elvis -- maybe even outside of Nashville.