NEW YORK -- It can't be easy picking up and moving after 15 years, no matter what Bryan Trottier says. He earned four championship rings with the New York Islanders, married a Long Island woman and had three children. But to listen to him, leaving the Islanders and joining the Pittsburgh Penguins had all the raw emotion of checking out of a hotel. "That's the business," he said.
Trottier has always been like that, shrugging his shoulders and looking forward to the next day, ever since he arrived as a peach-fuzzed rookie from Val Marie, Saskatchewan, just off the farm. That was in 1975, when the Islanders were climbing the ladder and Trottier was there standing below, giving them a shove. Even then, everyone had an idea of what was ahead.
That first year, the Islanders were leaving Toronto, rumpled and bleary-eyed as they boarded the team bus at dawn after a big win the night before. One by one, the players collapsed in their seats, but there was no Trottier. Coach Al Arbour kept glancing at his watch and tapping his shoe, and still there was no Trottier.
Finally, Arbour ordered the driver to head for the airport. And as the bus dodged into traffic, left wing Garry Howatt chirped from the back seat: "Oops. There goes the Stanley Cup."
Trottier caught up at the airport ticket counter and the dynasty was saved. But now it's 1990, Trottier is 34 and a brand-new member of the Penguins, one opponent the Islanders love to hate.
"It's funny," Trottier said. "I used to laugh at the Pittsburgh uniforms, the way they looked and all. I thought they were ugly. Black and gold. Penguin on the front. And then the first day I put it on, that all changed. I thought it looked great."
He is sitting in a booth at a restaurant called Piacquadio's, a hangout for the Penguins on the outskirts of the city. A few of his new teammates stop by the table, and the owner stops by, and pretty soon Trottier -- polite to a fault -- is shaking hands all around.
If you shake hands with Trottier and get your knuckles squeezed in that vise, you understand why the Penguins thought he still had some mileage left. He did score two goals Sunday night as the Penguins beat the Devils, and with Mario Lemieux out indefinitely with a back injury, Pittsburgh will need more than just his veteran leadership.
Trottier scored 500 goals for the Islanders. He recorded 853 assists. He was a fierce and relentless checker; he once slammed New York Rangers defenseman Barry Beck, a player much bigger than him, into the boards with such force a reporter in the press box at Madison Square Garden gasped: "I think the building just moved two feet."
But Saturday night, when the Islanders celebrate their home opener, Trottier will be centering for the other side, for the Penguins. Talk to Trottier and he'll tell you how the Penguins players are so much fun, how he loves the city, how he's never seen so much young talent in one place. Give him the chance and he'll praise everyone right down to the stick boy.
He will tell you how the Islanders' decision to buy out the remaining two years of his contract on July 3 may work out for the best after all, that he feels like a kid again. But ask him about this one game and Trottier's guard drops, like a boot hitting the floor.
"I find myself daydreaming about it," he said. "I think about stepping on the ice, what the reaction of the fans is going to be, what I'll be thinking during the the national anthem -- all that. Honestly, I don't feel nervous or uncomfortable about it. I just want to get it over with."
"He told me he keeps having this dream that he walks into the wrong dressing room," Trottier's wife, Nickie, said. "You know, he walks into the Islanders' room by mistake. Then he said: 'Knowing the guys, they wouldn't say anything.' "
This is not the way Trottier planned it. Nickie and the children staying home in Manhasset, N.Y., while he plays out the string in Pittsburgh. He expected to retire as an Islander. Nickie used to tease him that if he ever needed a transfusion, they'd have to find orange-and-blue blood.
This is not to suggest that Trottier was an angel. He could be stubborn. He exasperated management more than once in his appeals for more ice time. But as long as Trottier was around, no one was allowed to criticize the other players. If you took on any one of the Islanders, you took on Trottier.
Even when the team instigated a brawl with the Rangers in last season's playoff series, Trottier firmly defended the club's actions. "I backed the team up. I said how we didn't mean to start anything, that it just sort of happened."
"Inside, I was thinking, 'Bryan, you lyin' bastard.' "
He will go to his grave saying he wasn't hurt by the Islanders' decision to let him go -- business, and all that -- but the fact is that Trottier spent 15 years with the club, became a hero and enjoyed immense popularity. All Trottier will say is that he didn't understand it.
"All of a sudden, I got a shift here, a shift there," he said. "I was sitting on the bench and I felt like I wasn't contributing a hell of a lot, and it was tormenting me. I think, in hindsight, I'd have been better off saying: 'Trade me, trade me.' But I just couldn't do that."
It got worse. His relationship with Arbour and General Manager Bill Torrey quickly deteroriated. In 1980, Arbour and Trottier had sipped champagne from the Stanley Cup together, tears running down their cheeks. But last season, Trottier was benched in the final playoff game, a signal the era had ended.
Three months later, Torrey would call his decision to release Trottier "painful," and, whether or not the announcement was handled with care and grace, this much is certain: Torrey had to choke back tears. When the Islanders and Penguins played a preseason game in Oakland earlier this month, Trottier and Torrey spoke briefly, but it wasn't the same anymore.
"What's happened doesn't change my feeling about Bill and Al as the people I've come to know," Trottier said. "But I've seen a side of them I don't understand."
Still, the break with the past might have been cleaner and easier if a proposed rink Trottier planned to build in partnership with Nassau County hadn't become the target of political infighting. Democrats called the agreement a "boondoggle" because the county awarded the project to Trottier without seeking competitive bids. Republicans argued the rink required a professional skill only Trottier could offer.
Trottier, bewildered, got caught in the crossfire.
He'd made Long Island his home. He felt abandoned.
"I felt like I was getting the crap kicked out of me for no reason, except that I was there," he said. "Even some friends started to look at me funny. It was like: 'The Islanders bought you out. The politicians say you're a crook. Are you really the guy we thought you were for the last 15 years?' What could I say?"
It was better to move on. The rink deal eventually fell through, but by then Trottier was in Pittsburgh, making new friends. Pittsburgh is his second home, Trottier says. "Long Island is still home, always will be."
That's why Arbour, an old softie, said he expects the scene of Trottier taking the ice in a Pittsburgh uniform to be "very touching." It's why Brent Sutter said: "It's going to seem funny not seeing Trots sitting in the corner of the room, teasing one of the guys, like he always did."
At least he will be wearing his familiar No. 19. The number was a gift from Randy Gilhen, the Penguin who wore it last season. He presented a sweater with the numeral to Trottier on the first day of training camp, and a bond between the two grew immediately.
"It sort of reminded me of my first roommate, Neil Nicholson," Trottier said. "He took me under his wing and we got along great. To me, he might as well have been Bobby Orr. He'd wait for me in the hotel lobby, we'd go out to eat, hang around, talk hockey. That was a great time."
That was 15 years ago.