After accepting a telephone offer to become the coach of the Washington Capitals, Barry Trotz wanted to know he had made the right decision, so his wife told him to seek signs of affirmation. He found them stuffed into a box.
As they were cleaning out closets in their Nashville home, preparing to change cities for the first time in almost two decades, Trotz came across a box containing old vacation snapshots of the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument; a Capitals T-shirt his daughter Shalan, now in her 20s, used to wear as a toddler; a copy of Trotz’s 1987 contract with Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate in Baltimore; and a picture of Trotz — shirtless and drenched in champagne, puffing a cigar and clutching a beer — celebrating the Calder Cup championship a year later, when the AHL club had moved to Portland, Maine.
“Everything we did seemed to point to Washington,” Trotz said.
At his introductory news conference May 27, Trotz told the media that taking over in Washington felt like returning home. The area might feel familiar in some ways, like the Northern Virginia houses that remind the Trotzes of Maine. But plenty has changed since, too. The Capitals switched arenas. Local fan interest has grown exponentially, which means more media coverage and a brighter spotlight. The face of the Capitals is forward Alex Ovechkin, the kind of elite offensive talent Trotz never coached in Nashville.
The pressure is instant. Trotz — the coach respected throughout the league, the man for whom no one seems to have a bad word — didn’t need a sign to see that.
“That’s an excellent thing to have,” Trotz said. “I have high expectations for this team. Will that happen in one year? Or will it happen in two years or three years? That’s the million-dollar question that coaches and fans have.”
Trotz left home in ninth grade, first attending the College of Notre Dame in Saskatchewan then joining the Regina Pats for juniors in the Western Hockey League. He wasn’t viewed as an NHL prospect anyway, and when he was 17, Trotz took a check and fractured seven vertebrae. At a Capitals training camp in 1982, Trotz introduced himself to former director of player personnel Jack Button and promised to play hard.
“You know what,” Button told him, “The only reason you’re here is you might be a good minor-league leader or a coach someday.”
When Trotz’s back issues lingered, Button was proved correct. At 22, Trotz was an assistant coach at the University of Manitoba. At 23, he became the general manager and head coach of the Dauphin Kings in his home town, working at a clothing store on the side for the flexible hours and discounted suits. Then he took the head job at Manitoba and started scouting western Canada for the Capitals.
“When I look back at what’s happened on Barry’s résumé, I’m very proud to be a part of it,” said David Poile, who became Washington’s general manager in 1982 and later Trotz’s general manager in Nashville. “He’s got a résuméthat everybody should have.”
When Trotz became the Skipjacks coach in 1992, he became a gatekeeper of sorts, several former players said, teaching them how to act before they moved onto bigger things. He invited them over for cookouts and introduced future Capitals forward Steve Konowalchuk to Chesapeake crabs. He learned to treat players “like men,” and not insist on the “my way or the highway” approach some young coaches adopt. After the franchise moved to Portland, the Pirates reached two Calder Cup finals, led by future Capitals such as Olaf Kolzig, Jeff Nelson and Andrew Brunette.
“He has a good way of making you work hard without feeling like a drill sergeant,” Konowalchuk said.
And whenever the AHL grind set in — whether the nine-hour bus rides or constant call-ups and send-downs between the NHL club — Trotz was there.
“I think one year I was probably up and down maybe 15 times, so it was starting to wear on me,” said Brunette, now a hockey advisor for the Minnesota Wild. “Whenever I came back, there was always a talk, at a certain point it was a feeling that he believed you could play at this level. You always felt good coming back, a reassurance that he still believed in you.”
When the NHL added Nashville as an expansion franchise for the 1998-99 season, Poile hired Trotz as the team’s first coach, against all advice that told him to find someone with more experience. The Predators won 28 games, and Trotz later told reporters that they should have been predicted to lose every single one.
“Every time you won a game, it seemed like it was worthy of a celebration,” Poile said. “And every time we did win, the other team’s coach thought their team was awful and they had a hard skate the next day.”
Trotz quickly became a favorite in Nashville. He took players to lunch and picked up new acquisitions at the airport. He asked visiting stars to autograph sticks and jerseys for the Best Buddies charity — which creates friendships for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — and organized a Best Buddies prom, which grew so large they now hold it in the Predators’ arena.
“It sometimes makes you feel selfish when you see the things he does and the time he takes,” said Peter Horachek, a longtime assistant in Nashville.
Despite a payroll consistently among the league’s lowest, Trotz led the Predators to the playoffs in seven of eight seasons beginning in 2003-04. Two of those teams included dynamic scorer Paul Kariya, but Trotz’s teams were mostly built on defensive structure. Blue-liners such as Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were the franchise’s faces. Goaltenders such as Pekka Rinne and Tomas Vokoun were the anchors.
“He wants people to be disciplined; he wants people to play two-way hockey,” said Brent Peterson, another longtime assistant. Washington defenseman Mike “Green and Ovechkin and everyone, if they can’t play for Barry Trotz, they will not play for anybody. He communicates well; he expects you to play hard; then you go out and you play.”
After missing the playoffs for a second straight season, Trotz sensed the end of his tenure in Nashville was coming after 17 years. He had won 557 games there and reached seven postseasons. His family had planted roots and found schools for their kids, particularly 13-year-old son Nolan, who has Down syndrome.
When the Predators announced April 14 they wouldn’t extend his contract, they offered him a front-office job and donated $25,000 to his charity. On his way to the farewell news conference, Trotz almost drove off the road when he spotted a billboard emblazoned, “Thank You Coach Trotz.”
His father, Orest, was a railroader, so young Barry learned hard work over summer jobs, pounding spikes and fixing bridges. This, Trotz said, explains why today he spends so much time at Home Depot, buying tools for his latest handyman project and schmoozing with whichever fans happened to recognize him that day.
“I don’t really build stuff,” he said, smiling. “I repair stuff. The kids break stuff, I try to repair it.”
That might define his task in Washington, where Trotz takes over a team that features some unique talents but has struggled to find a clear identity since winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010. The Capitals haven’t advanced past the second round since 1998. Owner Ted Leonsis has called this offseason a “refresh, not a rebuild.”
“They have enough with what they have right now that Barry can turn the team around,” said Keith Jones, an NBC hockey analyst who played 20 games under Trotz in Baltimore and Portland.
With the job open, it didn’t take long for Capitals President Dick Patrick to contact Trotz to gauge his level of interest in the vacancy; Trotz said it was high. But other teams were also interested in Trotz, and he scheduled interviews with several of them.
The first, though, was with the Capitals on May 20. Leonsis, who said the interview lasted between five and six hours, asked him about three aspects: himself, his coaching philosophy and how he felt he could help the Capitals, such as keeping intact the league’s most prolific power play while instilling a new approach on defense.
Trotz didn’t want to commit until the Capitals named a general manager, but upon learning that all the candidates for the job apparently wanted him as coach, he called off other interviews. Days later, he accepted the job from Brian MacLellan, the former assistant general manager under George McPhee who would be promoted to general manager.
“I just wanted to know,” he remembered MacLellan saying, “if you’re still interested in coming to Washington.”
“Absolutely,” Trotz replied.
“Could I hire you?”
“Yes,” Trotz said. “Yes, you can.”
Recalling all the “signs” they found in their box of memories, Barry Trotz asked his wife if he had forgotten anything important.
“Bike ride,” Kim muttered.
He nearly jumped from his seat: “Oh,” he said. “True story.”
After his interview in Washington but before being formally offered the job, Barry took Nolan on a bike ride while Kim was visiting a friend in Chattanooga. At one point, father and son turned down a path they hadn’t ridden before. To remember the route, Trotz stopped and looked back at the intersection. The street signs crossed at an angle, so the full names were obscured. He could read only parts of the words.
“Well I look back,” Trotz said, “and I see O-V-E-R-C-H.”
The street was called Overcheck Lane, but Trotz was thinking about Washington’s star player and what it would be like to coach the NHL’s leading goal-scorer. Then he thought about his wife, who an hour before had again reminded him to seek meaning in the mundane. So he called Kim.
“I don’t know if this is a sign,” he began, “But I’m looking at a literal sign. And this is what I saw.”