NASHVILLE — “I miss you, Barry,” Bryan Link said.
Barry Trotz had entered the offices of Best Buddies of Tennessee amid a swirl of handshakes and hugs and what the 24-year-old Link later called “happy tears.” The group, which helps match special-needs kids and adults with friends, was a central part of Trotz’s life during his 17 years coaching the Nashville Predators. Now, as the coach of the NHL-leading Capitals, he was back in town for a long weekend of All-Star Game festivities. This non-profit, tucked into a small suite in a suburban office park, was one of his first stops.
“I miss you coaching the Predators,” said Rachel Rogers, 23, after showing Trotz photos of him still saved on her phone.
“I miss being here,” Trotz told her.
Tennessee’s chapter of an organization launched at Georgetown in 1989 might be unrecognizable without Trotz. He spearheaded the group’s first fundraising push, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of memorabilia, leaned on local media friends to turn the non-profit into a Nashville institution, and created a link with the Predators that continued after his 2014 firing. (The team made a $25,000 donation to Best Buddies in his honor after cutting ties with the only coach it had ever known.)
“We miss you being a coach,” said Mike Maguire, 49.
“I’m still a coach,” Trotz promised Maguire and friends. “You’ll have to visit some time. Washington’s a beautiful city.”
Trotz’s homecoming, if that’s still the right word, is among the warmest storylines of the NHL’s All-Star weekend. After nearly 1,200 games with the Predators, he now directs a Washington team that has sliced through the league, threatening to turn its divisional race into a contest for second place. His current outfit appears more dangerous than any of his Predators teams; Nashville, meantime, is fighting for one of the West’s final playoff spots.
Trotz has been back to Nashville before, during the offseason and with the Caps last winter. But with the entire league now gathered here, he can sneak a longer embrace with the place that gave him his NHL start. That meant an assurance to hotel staffers that no, he didn’t need directions; a trip to his favorite guitar store; a long dinner with friends; and a stop at Best Buddies, an organization he has remained tied to after nearly two years in Washington.
“I just thought he would shift [his focus] to the Capital region, which makes sense,” said Anneliese Barron, the group’s state director in Tennessee. “So the amount of support that he still gives us is a little mind-blowing.”
A jump start
When Barron — a stay-at-home mom whose second child was born with Down Syndrome — decided to launch Best Buddies in Tennessee, she set out to woo Trotz, whose son Nolan (now 15) also has Down Syndrome. At their first meeting, she promised him that if he spoke at a fundraising cocktail reception, she would never ask him for another favor.
“No one knows who I am; no one cares who I am; no one’s going to come to it,” she told Trotz. “But if they see your name, that’s going to draw people.”
The oft-told story continues with Trotz breaking down in tears during his speech to 20 or 25 couples, with the event raising $30,000, with the group getting off the ground and with Trotz then asking again and again how he could help.
As she promised, Barron never again requested any favors. She didn’t have to. Trotz showed up at the group’s 5k run before dawn to offer his help. He came early to the annual charity gala to set up chairs and tables. He got his Nashville players involved, offering to pay their way to the event. Several of the team’s stars volunteered to be buddies; one, goalie Pekka Rinne, even went to the group’s annual prom, which Trotz helped bring to Bridgestone Arena three years ago.
With his help, the Best Buddies logo started showing up inside the arena and on the jumbotron during every third period. He asked for a Best Buddies t-shirt he could wear during news conferences. He suggested local radio hosts put him on the air, as long as he could have 60 seconds to talk about Best Buddies. Every time he mentioned the group in an interview, Barron’s phone would start buzzing. Once, driving home from work, she flipped to a local sports station and heard Trotz talking about her group.
“She did all the work,” Trotz said Thursday. “I was sort of a big mouth.”
But not just a mouth. Trotz asked the top few players from every NHL team to sign gear for the group’s annual auction. He surprised Barron with signed memorabilia from the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams. He used his connections in the music industry to land dozens of signed guitars from touring acts. Barron said his contributions easily raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also preached a message of acceptance and inclusion, both for his son and for others; “we turned it into a movement,” he said.
The program grew from two schools to 105. It launched a job-training program that now has 5,500 participants. It began attracting 2,000 kids to its prom; the Predators foundation is paying for the entire event this year.
“Barry’s done so much for our kids,” said Richard Moore, whose son Matt wore a Predators jersey to Thursday’s reunion. “Awareness, publicity, fundraising. People in the community are willing to donate money just to have dinner with Barry, and that money goes to programs like Best Buddies that reach out to kids that need help.”
When he left Nashville, Trotz talked to Rinne and Shea Weber, asking “if they could sort of help make sure [Best Buddies] doesn’t take a back seat” after his departure. The two players have continued to work with the group; they recently donated two suites to a game, and will do so again in February.
“We’ve seen it, we’ve been around it and we knew it was something we wanted to stay connected with, and when he asked us it just kind of solidified it,” Weber said. “People on the outside just watch hockey and the results and what the team’s doing. But people around the city know what he meant to this city and what he did. And I think you’ll see that when he gets announced before the fans Saturday and Sunday.”
And Trotz is still coordinating donations of signed sticks and guitars from afar. He brought a sack of Caps gear Thursday, including gloves and pants and pads signed by his Washington players, and a Joe Flacco-signed football. He already bought three guitars that he plans to fill with player autographs this weekend. (“I’ll put the squeeze on them,” he promised staffers. “I’m not doing anything else.”) As usual, he also covertly left a four-figure check in Barron’s office, which she discovered after he had left.
Asked why he hasn’t moved on, Trotz teared up.
“Because these are my friends,” he said.
Making a home
Trotz has a theory about what turns a city into your home. It goes a bit deeper than a mailing address.
“Home is where your friends are,” Trotz said in the parking lot, after leaving the group with more hugs than you could count, plus one pinkie promise. “That’s how I sort of view it. It’s where you feel comfortable, where you feel like you’ve been a part of something.”
That was Nashville for 17 years, where he coached the third-most games and recorded the third-most wins of any NHL coach in a single city, where he’s still spoken of in reverential tones.
“I think it was an extreme loyalty, that’s the only way I can really put it,” said Shannon Sample, a 36-year-old Predators season ticket holder. “Of all the teams, of all the sports I’ve ever been a fan of, he just seems like the most stand-up guy I’ve ever had as the coach of my team.”
Put aside a few typical complaints about tactics, Sample said, and “I don’t think anyone has ever said anything negative about Barry Trotz in Nashville.” Which is why Sample found himself becoming a Caps fan after Trotz joined the team. He now counts Washington as his second-favorite team, merely because of its coach.
Trotz has made a transition of his own, while transforming the Caps from a lost organization into a favorite to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. Washington, he told Caps goalie coach Mitch Korn this week, feels like home.
Ask him about his profession, and Trotz’s buttons are jammed in one direction: “If you always look back, and you always want to go back to where you were, it makes no sense,” he said.
Life is more complicated. Trotz talked this week about returning to Nashville one day, about taking future grandchildren to see Predators games here. He’s offered unsolicited tourism advice to visiting reporters, and spent more than three hours in the media center Friday, where he was scheduled to appear for 20 minutes.
He is hardly the only Washingtonian who spent half a lifetime somewhere else, who moved to D.C. for work and warmed up to the city without losing those previous geographic ties. Just listen to the sound at Verizon Center when the Sabres or Red Wings score a goal.
“My home is in Washington. I love it in Washington,” Trotz said. “I think home is where you make it. And I made a great home [in Nashville], and I can still say I have a home here even though I don’t own property, you know? … I feel like I belong here. I feel like I belong in Washington, D.C. You can have multiple homes.”
So he told his buddies about Washington’s monuments and museums, and about how strong his new team is, and how nice Washington’s players are. They talked about NASCAR, country music, swimming and Trotz’s son. He asked them to make the Caps their favorite Eastern Conference team, and listened to his pals tell him how much they missed him. (“Why’d he go to Washington?” Link asked after Trotz left the building. “Why? I don’t get it.” ) And the coach made it clear that even as he attempts to make history in Washington, he remains a part of Nashville.
“I’m in a good place where I am. I was in a good place when I was here, too,” Trotz said. “I still have the friends here, and I’ll always have the memories that I had here. But I’m making new friends and I’m making new memories.”