It was probably the last message Barry Trotz wanted to hear.
He was a 20-year-old defenseman, an undrafted free agent invited to training camp with AHL Hershey in 1982. Trotz had just finished his junior hockey career and wasn’t sure what was next.
But he had an opportunity thanks to the late Jack Button, the Washington Capitals’ director of player recruitment. Seeing Button in the stands carrying on a conversation with another man, Trotz climbed up to say thanks for the invite and the chance. He was going to make it difficult for the Caps to send him back to Manitoba.
Button, a longtime hockey executive who spent 17 years with Washington before his passing in 1996, eyed the eager young Trotz and gave him the undiluted truth.
“I know who the hell you are. I invited you here,” Button said. “The only reason that you’re here is you might be a good minor league leader or a coach someday.”
Button had Trotz pegged. So, too, did the other man who witnessed that conversation: then-Caps general manager David Poile, who would later hire Trotz to coach the expansion Nashville Predators in 1998.
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“I’m glad [Button] said it to me because later on when I started getting into coaching he was one of the first guys to reach out,” Trotz said.
That was Trotz’s first connection with the Caps. It wouldn’t be his last. Fired by Poile in Nashville last month after 15 seasons, Trotz this week became Washington’s new coach. And so a journey that began at that camp in central Pennsylvania 32 years ago had came full circle.
Trotz, a native of Dauphin, Manitoba, a town of little more than 8,000 people, began his coaching career at the University of Manitoba in 1984 at age 22. Within two years he was head coach and general manager of the Dauphin Kings, his hometown’s junior team. After a few seasons as a part-time scout for Washington, Trotz joined the Caps full-time in 1988 and two years later became an assistant coach for their AHL affiliate in Baltimore.
“Jack saw something in Barry that told him he could be a hockey guy,” Poile said. “He was the underdog in every way. Coming from small-town Canada, an undersized defenseman playing a very aggressive style of hockey, taking no quarter from anybody. Just always very determined and very persistent and you see that in everything he undertakes.”
After winning a Calder Cup with AHL Portland in 1994 and taking the team back to the finals two years later, Trotz put himself on the radar to be an NHL coach. Poile, after 15 years as general manager, was not re-signed by Washington in 1997. He was quickly hired by Nashville to build the Predators from scratch.
Friends and colleagues around the NHL implored Poile to hire the most experienced coach he could find. As an expansion team, Nashville was going to be terrible and there was no escaping it. Why not find someone who could cover up the inevitable mistakes? Instead, Poile hired Trotz. He calls it the best decision he’s ever made.
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The pair lasted until just last month when, after a second consecutive season outside of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Poile fired his friend. Together they had taken the Predators to the playoffs seven times in eight years, twice to the second round, and Trotz was twice a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.
Through it all they had to deal with a tight budget and an ownership fiasco in 2007 that almost saw the team sold and moved to southern Ontario. That wasn’t resolved for months until local business owners stepped in to purchase the club.
“We had some trials and tribulations in Nashville getting an expansion team to take root,” Trotz said. “It hasn’t been easy. There’ve been different road blocks in our situation.”
Through it all, the Predators persevered even if — much like the recent Caps — they never made it past the second round in 2011 and 2012. The idea is that Trotz takes that 15 years of experience and finds a way to stabilize a Washington franchise that also has lost its way over the last few years.
Even Poile, who made the painful decision to let Trotz go, sees the right match.
“Barry is a good coach, but he’s a better person and that comes across,” Poile said. “You gravitate to people like Barry Trotz. You want to work with and for people like Barry Trotz. His work ethic is second to none, his standards are second to none. That allows him to be successful in whatever he’s going to do.”