Ironic return to Nashville for Barry Trotz as All-Star coach

1:00 | NHL
Barry Trotz's remarkable job with Capitals earns him SI midseason Coach of the Year
Friday January 29th, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sometime after Christmas, as the Washington Capitals surged further ahead in the Metropolitan Division, head coach Barry Trotz began to think some of his plans were going to get canceled. He and a few friends had discussed traveling somewhere during the NHL All-Star break, and even tossed around a few location ideas. “Somewhere warm, or somewhere out west,” Trotz says. Besides, with one son living in Russia and the rest of his family visiting a daughter in Australia, Trotz was going to be alone during the layoff anyway. The getaway guys’ weekend, he figured, would be rejuvenating before the season picked up again.

Then the Capitals intervened by continuing to do what they have done all season—win. By Dec. 27, their divisional lead had climbed into double digits, 10 points ahead of the sliding New York Rangers. It wasn’t official yet, but the odds overwhelmingly pointed to Trotz spending his break behind a bench in Nashville. He warned his friends about the predicament. They asked if he could get out of it. “They were a little mad at me for not having hall passes,” Trotz says. Eventually, though, the promise of All-Star Game swag swayed popular opinion. They would all go. “We’ll hang out, not have a problem,” Trotz says. “It was more about getting out of town.”

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Consider the irony, then, of the destination of Trotz’s second career All-Star nod (his first was in Dallas, in 2007, as an assistant to Randy Carlyle): Instead of escaping to some beachside property with his buddies, he would fly to the city he knew best, the place he lived for 17 years. By his firing in April 2014, he had become the NHL’s longest-tenured head coach and the second-longest in all North American professional sports, a unicorn among today’s turnover fodder. During his time, the Predators grew from an expansion franchise with little identity, housed in a downtown area Trotz describes as “beat-up,” into a consistent postseason contender worthy of hosting a weekend-long romp. He well remembers rumors of relocation to Kansas City and Hamilton, and wondering whether the experiment with hockey in Tennessee had fizzled out. Now, with hockey fans buzzing along Broadway, he believes Nashville will never feel more alive.

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In this, Trotz expects to find satisfaction during All-Star weekend. He can walk to restaurants and bars from the rink. He can venture across the pedestrian bridge to the football stadium. He often talks about one day bringing his grandchildren to Predators games, assuming he retires in Nashville. “It’s there,” he says. “It’s going to be there for a long, long time. To me, it’s gratifying that it made it.”

And to those who might expect a vengeful, look-how-well-I’m-doing-without-you attitude, like attending the same function as an old spouse, Trotz shakes his head. The Capitals might lead the entire Eastern Conference by 11 points. They might even have 11 more wins than Nashville in three fewer games. He could take satisfaction from that, too, to the disagreement of no one. But, he says, this isn’t that. Nashville will always be where his legacy starts. To paraphrase Mitch Korn, the only goaltending coach Trotz has worked with in the NHL, every future Predators coach will always sit in the chair Trotz occupied first.

“Going back there, it’s almost like thanks for inviting me to the party,” Trotz says. “I feel like an alumni going back to a bowl game. Really. That’s how I feel. It’s been my home for a long time. They get a chance to have a big party and I get invited. That’s awesome. That’s how I look at it.”

Barry Trotz likes analogies and imagery. This is no secret to anyone who covers him. For instance, he believes the presence of a downtown arena can stimulate the surrounding area like “the machine that moves the wheel.” Phrases such as “pull the rope” and “feed the right wolf” became locker room mantras last season, and the Caps’ postgame award paid homage to Abraham Lincoln for an “honest” effort. After his first training camp, Trotz took the Capitals to the Iwo Jima Memorial. After his second, he invited a special operations officer to talk about fatigue on the battlefield.

Right now, inside his office on a recent afternoon, the talk shifts from Nashville to Washington and more symbols come out. “It was like you have a broken arm when I got there,” he says. “There were some fractures. So what do you do? You put a cast on it and let it heal. But then you have to retrain the muscles. To me, the first 20 games were that. There was some fracturing, there was some doubt, some loss of strength, and the strength is unity and focus and all that.”

Before sizzling through the rest of the month, the Capitals were only 10-10-4 after Dec. 2, 2014 last season while slowly adjusting to Trotz’s system and changes. Nashville, meanwhile, was tied atop the Central Division that same night, owners of the NHL’s best home record and thriving in Trotz’s absence. If there was ever a moment of envy, it happened early.

“I watched how [the Predators] did last year,” he says. “Yeah, it bothered me a little bit they got off to such a f---ing great start.”

The profanity is punctuation, but also a distant memory. Though Nashville won both meetings with Washington, and finished three points higher in the standings, the Capitals advanced further in the postseason. Now, they own the best start in franchise history by a wide margin. They have as many regulation losses by this All-Star break (8) as they did by their 20th game last season. They rank first in goals-for per game (3.32), second in goals-against per game (2.19), first in power play percentage (26.8), fourth in penalty kill (84.7%), and have a goal differential (+54) that is almost double anyone else in the NHL. (Dallas is second at +29.) Instead of confronting direct challengers to their throne, they are battling the very posh threat of complacency.

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Under Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan, who stepped into his role shortly before Trotz’s hiring, Washington’s progress has been steady behind the scenes as well. Assistants speak of more streamlined pre-scouts and players see a greater emphasis on individual film review. In October 2014, the team hired analytics pioneer Tim Barnes. This season, Tim Ohashi, a former coaching staff intern, joined the traveling party as a hockey operations analyst. Trotz, meanwhile, has openly discussed the team’s use of blood testing to better address nutritional needs.

“We changed a lot of things, when I look back at it,” he says. “We changed a ton of things. Now it’s in place and it’s rolling, it doesn’t seem like we’ve changed anything, because it’s the norm now. It’s the norm now. It’s the new normal. The new normal gets us better.”

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Now comes the rendezvous with the old normal. Though Trotz calls GM David Poile “the architect” of the Predators’ rise and himself merely “a foreman,” he will always be linked with Nashville. “He really grew with the franchise,” Poile says. Trotz helped start the local Best Buddies chapter, because his youngest son Nolan has Down syndrome, and was often seen asking visiting music acts for autographed guitars to auction off. After news of his firing broke, someone erected a billboard along the highway to thank him. 

“He’s been here since day one,” defenseman Shea Weber said last year. “He was so well-known. I can’t even speak for what exactly it would be like for him to go out, but it felt like everywhere you went, people knew who he was.”

Reminded of this reality, Trotz thought All-Star weekend would be different. Last January, when the Capitals visited Bridgestone Arena for the first time under Trotz, his return was greeted with much fanfare. A tribute video brought a standing ovation from the crowd and tears from Trotz. Much of his family and friends turned out for the occasion. But Washington was also on the front end of a back-to-back and left quickly. A lot of emotions were crammed into a tight window.

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This time, Trotz eagerly anticipates seeing Nashville through a different lens—that of the tourist. He will have some light duties coaching the Metropolitan Division team in the 3-on-3 tournament, but that will happen beside one of four country music singers chosen as “celebrity coaches.” And when Trotz asked if he should even pack his skates, he was told to not bother. Otherwise, there will be plenty of time to explore.

“I’m the guy that’s the visitor,” he says. “I don’t have a house there right now. I don’t have family. It’s not going to feel like home. I’ll be there and I talked with my friends, we’re going to go to one of our old restaurants that we used to go to. There’s a couple spots I want to hit that I never went to.”

For instance? Only the main drag’s most famous honky tonk spot.

“I’m going to go to Tootsie’s, yeah, at some point,” he says. “That walk over to Tootsie’s, I’ve never done that before. I was coaching hockey. I never got to do what everybody else does when they come into town. I’ll get a chance to do that. But other than that, it’ll be fun. It’ll just be fun. I’m familiar with a lot of the people and we’ll have some good stories, we’ll have some good laughs.

“It’ll go by fast.” 

The man who moved the wheel just wants to party.

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