Barry Trotz had always recognized the power that comes with being a hockey head coach, so to test his players he sometimes floats balloons — not literal balloons, just something to see if they can tell whether Trotz is messing with them.
“You look like you were out all night,” Trotz might tell someone in the locker room during morning skate, only to watch him squirm.
“No, no, I was in at nine,” the player might scramble to say. “I went to a show then came back.”
Then Trotz will laugh.
“You realize maybe a player’s a little scared of you,” the new Capitals coach said Thursday, during a long interview at his hotel across the street from the team’s practice facility. “If he is, he’s not respecting you for the right reasons. He’s just scared of you. Sometimes I want him to respect what I do.
“He doesn’t have to be scared of me. He could be scared of the results of him not paying attention, be it less ice time or that type of thing, or not getting the ability to make the hockey team because I wasn’t giving him a chance, he wasn’t doing his job, all those things. I don’t want him to be scared. I want him to respect me. If you’re scared, then you’re not working. You’re doing it out of fear. There should be a natural fear of if I don’t play well, I don’t play.”
Through the years, Trotz has developed a reputation as approachable and caring for his skaters, whether picking them up at the airport, inviting them to lunch or hosting them for barbeques at his Nashville home. But those who have played for Trotz, whether with the Predators for 15 seasons or earlier with Washington’s American Hockey League affiliates in Baltimore and Portland, Maine, speak foremost about Trotz’s insistence on accountability.
“In my case,” said former player Andrew Burnette, now an analyst in the Minnesota Wild organization, “I needed that. Either through ice time, back then we had longer practices and he’d get you after practice, he held you accountable that … he’d give you a little slap in the butt when you needed one. I think he taught me how to be a pro. He taught us what work ethic is and how hard.”
But even on the long, winding bus rides after losses, often somber affairs, Trotz never chastised his players for cracking jokes or playing cards, so long as they played hard while on the ice. He rarely screamed and almost never cursed, though in Nashville he was known to cover his mouth with a notecard containing that night’s line changes, so his children wouldn’t see the profanities leak from his mouth during game, according to former assistant Brent Peterson.
“If you worked hard and didn’t win, you could still take a breath and not be too miserable,” said Steve Konowalchuk, the former Capitals forward who played for Trotz in the AHL. “Then if you won, it was a real good mood.”
“I thought he had a really good way of getting his message across, where you had some level of respect but he was also good about making a younger player feel comfortable in a brand-new setting,” said Keith Jones, another former player now working as an NBC hockey analyst.
Everything will be brand new in Washington, despite the time Trotz spent here in the early 1990s, coaching the Baltimore Skipjacks. Only one current Capitals player, Joel Ward, has played for Trotz in the past – Ward spoke with TSN at the French Open and said Trotz would “be a good mix for us” – and Trotz has begun the long process of meeting everyone in the organization, feeling out the roster.
“Do we have some holes? Yeah,” Trotz said. “We have to get some consistency on the back end, and when I say the back end, I mean our whole defensive five-on-five game. There’s got to be a consistency factor on the back end. We’ve got some really good people in [John] Carlson and [Karl] Alzner and [Dmitry] Orlov. That group has to be a little more consistent, especially around the net, the small-area game.
“Then the decisions in terms of managing pucks. Coming out of the defensive zone or through the neutral zone in terms of making good decisions. That has to be a lot more consistent and better. Forwards, continue to score but also they have to be harder on the puck, make sure they have a little more detail in their game.”
With plenty of questions to be answered next season – chief among them how different the defense will look under Trotz, how he will handle star forward Alex Ovechkin and whether he’s the answer to helping Washington solve its playoff woes– Trotz has his coaching principles set, and those have not wavered since he was back in Baltimore.
“Being a pro is on and off the ice,” Trotz said. “It’s how you treat people, how you act, how you handle discipline. It’s human nature for guys. It’s difficult to try to something the easier way. It’s fighting through the resistance so it becomes easy. Sometimes players and people don’t recognize that. Everybody’s different. You can’t put everybody in a box. But you can put them in a framework as a group.”