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Capitals head coach Barry Trotz talks job stability, life on the railways

Capitals head coach Barry Trotz presides over arguably the NHL's best team, but his long NHL coaching career has taught him that complacency is not an option.

ARLINGTON, Va. – Barry Trotz leans against the water cooler inside the stick room at the Washington Capitals’ facility, relaxing after practice last Friday. Between the tight baseball cap, salt-dusted beard, red tracksuit and running sneakers, it kind of looks like your peace and justice professor wandered into the hockey rink while power walking through campus. The eyeglasses lend a particularly academic touch. “These aren’t even prescription,” Trotz says. “They’re fake.”

The laugh that follows confirms two things: First, the reigning Jack Adams winner is joking about his specs. Second, life is indeed pretty loose around Kettler Capitals Iceplex these days, and for good reason. On Saturday night, Washington beat Anaheim, 6–4, joining the ’70–71 Bruins as the only teams to score at least five goals in 11 straight home games. By Monday, at the start of their bye week, the Capitals (39–11–6) held a nine-point lead over the rest of the Eastern Conference, and were four points ahead of Minnesota in the race to defend their Presidents’ Trophy.

Before the players and staffers scattered to their beachside destinations, Trotz spoke with in a zigzagging (and lightly edited) conversation about job security and firings, rail gangs and Russian players, plus several more random topics. 

Sports Illustrated: Did you know that, in your third season, you’re now the 10th longest-tenured head coach in the NHL?

Barry Trotz: Tenth?

SI: So, two-thirds of your colleagues have turned over since you arrived in D.C.

BT: Oh, wow. No, I didn’t know that. That doesn’t say much about the profession I’ve picked. [laughs] I’m surprised by that. But I think what’s happened lately is that because there’s parity, general managers and organizations are a little more quick to make that change, because they feel, in certain situations, they’re looking for a little bit of a spark. They’re just on that fringe of maybe falling out a little bit and letting the process happen, they try to jumpstart it. It’s almost like taking an energy drink, to see if you can get a little boost and get enough separation to get yourself into a position where you can get traction.

It’s because of the parity. You look in the east, there are still probably eight teams fighting for one or two playoff spots, and they’re separated by four points. Everybody’s looking for that edge. Sometimes, in this salary cap era, it is hard to make a trade. It’s hard to get moving, and there’s less trading because there’s more parity. A lot of times, the only thing you can do is change the head coach. This year, more so than ever, teams get some injuries on a compressed schedule, it’s hard to go on a run. And therefore, some very good coaches and some very good friends have been let go. They probably won’t be out of a job very long because they’re good coaches. But that’s the nature of the beast.

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SI: I was actually going to take it the other way and ask about stability, which you probably know more than most. [Trotz spent 17 years helming the Nashville Predators before his firing in April 2014.]

BT: I know some situations in the past where [general manager] David Poile stepped in, talked to the players, and said, “Listen, it’s on you guys. I like the direction we’re going. I like our coach. He’s not going anywhere. But if you like it here, you’re going to pull this thing together and let’s work through the problem together.” He’s done that twice that I can remember.

Both times he did it, the interesting thing about that, we were struggling, struggling, looked like we might not find our way, he basically came in and said we’re going to get this done. The players really responded and we became a better team. He put the onus back on the players by saying, “If you have the puck, [the coach is] not making the mistake. He might be making a mistake putting you on the ice, but you’re making a mistake, so let’s get this cleared.” And both times we became a more galvanized team, because we had to work through the problem.

My situation was so unique to most of sport now, but what it did was, when you have to work through a problem, and you get through that problem, you’re a much stronger team. And I was part of the group. I became part of that process too. I think that’s why we had some teams that people looked at us and said, they’re overachievers in Nashville. I used to hate that term, because I never thought we overachieved. I thought we played to our potential more consistently, and that’s what made us a team that could get in the playoffs.

SI:You’ve told this one story several times, about how you were attending a Washington Capitals training camp [in 1982], and how [Then director of player personnel] Jack Button said that you wouldn’t make it as a player, but you might make a good coach. What do you think he saw in you that made him say that?

BT: I have no idea. Probably a rink rat, probably someone who cared. I don't know what he saw. I always had a good work ethic when it comes to on the ice and all that. I was always a team guy. I ended up working for Jack, and Jack knew I put in tons of hours. He could be critical of me, but I always look at it that if you were critical of me, you’re just trying to make me better. You’re not trying to beat me down. Some guys, if you try to beat me down, I’d probably take a deep breath and I’d bounce back pretty good and be right back in your face. But I don't know what he saw. Whatever he saw, I’m glad he did.


SI: You started at the University of Manitoba. What is it about the college experience that seems to have produced so many NHL coaches?

BT: You know what was good about the Canadian college versus maybe even the U.S. colleges? Most of the Canadian college guys were a little older, and so they had gone through the draft, and they were playing hockey for the love of the game. They’d been passed over. A lot of the U.S. guys are looking to get drafted, so the motors are a little different for playing the game. But the Canadian college guys, I was really surprised how they were going to school and playing for a love of the game. You don’t have the big scholarships. I was amazed at how dedicated they were, and how hard they practiced and worked. Just for the love of the game.

The character of the guys was tremendous. In Canadian college you would find, the best example for you would be, for our team, Jay Beagle. Just coming to work. And if you said, you know what, you’re not getting paid, he’d still come and work. But you had, like, 15 of them. And they kept pushing the bar higher and higher. They might not have had that pure talent level. There was always a deficiency to their game, which was why they weren’t drafted or whatever. But the one thing they weren’t deficient of was heart and competitiveness. I was blown away.

SI: Was your first-ever job really on a rail gang?

BT: I had a couple part-time jobs when I was younger. I cleaned up at a bakery on Saturdays. The windows, the pots and pans, the stoves, all that stuff. Then I worked also cleaning up at a clothing store, unpacking and cleaning floors, part-time, when I was still in high school and playing. My first full-time job was working the extra gangs for the railroad. My dad used to be a mechanic on the railroads, so in the summer they’d fix tracks and bunkhouses, things like that. So I slept in railcars in the middle of nowhere. You worked four in the morning until four in the afternoon.

SI: Breaks?

BT: You had a lunch break. You’d work 12-hour days, maybe seven days straight, and then have four off, something like that. It was in the summer. That was my job when I was in junior [hockey]. I used to bring my weights, do some cardio. I used to run up and down the tracks. I’d work all day, get some sleep, and then wake up at probably 8 p.m. Up in Canada, it doesn’t get dark until 10, so I’d usually do a run and lift. I had a pretty big upper body, because I pounded spikes and carried a 40-pound tamping bar all day. Hammer and a tamping bar. It was legit work. At the end of the day, it was good for your strength and fitness.

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SI: Do you think that having one of your sons [Tyson, a teacher] working and living in Russia has helped you better connect with your Russian players [Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov]?

BT: I think so. Yeah, I think so. I think what my son living over there has done, I understand that we have a way of life in North America, and they have a way of life in Russia, and it’s different. They view the world a little differently than we do. And so if you just understand that part a little more, I think it helps me. I’m still stubborn like anyone else. But I think it helps to understand it.

SI: Speaking of Russian players, did you happen to catch what Evgeny did with the puck and the linesman against Detroit?

BT: No, what’d he do?

SI: He gave him the puck in his mouth. You haven’t seen this?

BT: No, I haven’t seen this. He’s funny sometimes. We talked about him building relationships with the referees and the linesmen. They’re the guys, if you understand them, they’re just human and they’re going to make mistakes, you understand what they’re going through. They made a mistake. Or if you get slighted somehow and they miss a call, and you have a good relationship, they’ll give you a break down the road.

It’s just human. If I’m on you all the time, you’re going to hate me. Just teaching him that and understanding that the referee who was refereeing last night, he’s probably going to be the same guy that 10 years from now is still refereeing, so why have a bad relationship for 10 years?

SI: [shows Trotz the video]

BT: [laughing] Oh, that's funny. He was giving it to [Detroit forward Tomas] Tatar when he shot it in our bench. He was just giving it to him. I was like, "What the f---‘s he saying?"