Once Barry Trotz had chosen his tie, ironed his suit and reviewed his speech one more time, he sat down at his dining room table and opened his laptop. He was at his Northern Virginia home late Tuesday, the night before he was scheduled to address the National Press Club luncheon, the first Washington Capitals coach ever invited to speak. His family was at their summer place in British Columbia, standard practice when the NHL draft, free agency and development camp vacuumed up all his free time anyway, so Trotz was alone with his thoughts and words.
He logged onto the organization’s Web site and read the names of those who have spoken at the Press Club. Presidents. Foreign leaders. Admirals. Generals. Fueled by nerves, he clicked on video of the most recent speaker, 2016 presidential candidate Rick Perry, hoping to learn what Wednesday afternoon would bring. “Trusting the Process,” Trotz had named the speech, drawn from his debut season with the Capitals, when he overhauled the culture and steered them into the Eastern Conference semifinals. But with all those luminaries before him, would anyone trust what he had to say? Where among them would he fit?
“I psyched myself out a little bit,” Trotz said. “But I’ll talk hockey. We’ll be all right.”
He planned to discuss his transition to the Capitals after spending 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators, when he spurned interest from three other clubs to inherit a group he thought had “lost their way.” He wanted to address the franchise’s tortured history, much as he had before Washington beat the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the first round, then lost to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the second, because he believed fear — fear of failure, fear of complacency, fear of getting passed in the Metropolitan Division — was a powerful motivator. After all, he said, “it has been 40 years” without a Stanley Cup, but maybe not much longer if Trotz got his way.
“Last year was a foundational year for us,” he would tell the crowd of 13 tables, surrounded by CSPAN cameras and suits eating wedge salads. Then later, before they stood and applauded the end of the speech, “We want to have a parade down one of these great streets.”
Back at the Capitals’ practice facility, during the second day of their annual summer development camp, Trotz’s fingerprints were planted everywhere. This time last July, Trotz had been engulfed by the tasks of running a new team, flying to Las Vegas to meet captain Alex Ovechkin, devouring film of his players, scripting schedules for the preseason. He didn’t yet know the route to Dulles International Airport.
Now, almost exactly three months before the 2015-16 season begins, Trotz’s influence has caked the organization. The 36 prospects attending camp will only scrimmage once this week, because Trotz wanted more instruction and fewer games. The upcoming schedule packaged more East Coast trips together, because Trotz hated flying to and from New Jersey without just bussing across the river into New York City, too.
“It feels comfortable,” he said. “It feels like home. I was out in British Columbia and I got a fabulous setup there with my family, it’s where we go in the summer, but it felt like home coming back here. I felt excited to be back here and get working again.”
There were still challenges ahead, just different kinds. Later, inside his office, Trotz stared at his current roster and began rattling off the questions. Who would right wingers T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, acquired via trade and free agency, respectively, skate beside in the top six? Would forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, recently signed to a two-year, $6 million deal, continue excelling as their second-line center? How about other youngsters asked to step up, like Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt? Could goaltender Braden Holtby replicate his strong season?
And for that matter, could the Capitals?
“To me, it doesn’t matter who wins first, I just want someone to win in this city,” Trotz said, echoing a belief expressed after beating the Islanders in Game 7 at Verizon Center. “They’re going to push whoever hasn’t won yet, it’ll suck them up. It’ll pull that up. I don’t care who does. I just want someone. If we do it first, great. If the Nats do it first, great. If the Wizards do it first, great. Or if the Redskins do it first, great. It’ll pull this sports environment up.
“We have a good sports town, but we do have a lot of scars, it seems.”
Then Trotz turned to the next dry-erase board and pointed to the top. It was a list of his messages to the Capitals, for when they reconvened at training camp in September and once more began working toward a Stanley Cup.
The first one read, “Stick to the script.”
The event went well. He fielded a parade of photo-seekers and season-ticket holders in a VIP section beforehand, including one who was “super bummed” the Capitals hadn’t traded for forward Patrick Sharp, because her husband liked the Chicago Blackhawks. He signed a 107-year-old luncheon guestbook, pages away from Theodore Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela, writing, “Thank you for your kindness.”
The speech went well too, once the nerves subsided. He opened with an often-told anecdote, about how a brutally honest Washington official once told him he was better suited for coaching than playing. He drew laughs for omitting curse words in favorite locker room mantras — “It’s a little different when I’m talking to people with all their teeth” — and cracked jokes about raiding the Pittsburgh Penguins, because defensemen Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Taylor Chorney all came from the rival team.
He fielded pre-submitted questions, acknowledging how the Capitals had, at least on paper, become a lighter team by effectively exchanging Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward for Oshie and Williams, but hoping they would maintain the bruising style that powered them past the Islanders. He revealed Washington was still exploring options at third-line center, particularly in light of Nicklas Backstrom’s offseason hip surgery, which could sideline him past opening night.
Nearing the end, Trotz was asked about the biggest difference between coaching in Nashville and Washington. He focused on the personal aspects of the move, the side finally finished.
“Hockey’s hockey,” he said. “I’ve dealt with top players in the past. It’s just, when you move, you have to make new friends, have a new adventure. And it was a great adventure last year.”