When Barry Trotz came to the District on Memorial Day weekend to sign his contract as the next coach of the Washington Capitals, he flew in on that Monday and was planning on leaving to return to his home in Tennessee three days later, on Thursday. But when Friday afternoon rolled around, there was Trotz in his new office at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, multi-tasking away. While he conducted an interview with a reporter, Trotz continued to do some paperwork and some planning.
“I’ve started every morning working at probably 5:30 or quarter to six [a.m.], call it six,” Trotz told the reporter. “And I’ve been finishing up every day probably around midnight. I was supposed to go home yesterday and I’m staying today. I’m actually getting through my list and I think I’ve bought a house. I’ve got a lot going on.”
If there’s work to be done, Trotz is going to do it. And he will expect the same from his players. That work ethic is one of the traits that fueled his rise to the NHL.
Seventeen years ago this summer, Trotz was hired as the first-ever coach of the Nashville Predators, an NHL expansion team that was more than a year away from playing its first game in the league. He held that post until April of this year, when the Predators announced that they would not renew his contract. Just over a month later, Trotz was named the Capitals’ bench boss.
Those who follow the National Hockey League know all about what Trotz has been doing for the last 17 years, but what about the 17 or so years before that? He was in one place for most of the last 17 years, and in many places the 17 years before that. Until he got to Nashville, Trotz’s nomadic career had produced way more miles than money.
Born in Winnipeg and raised in Dauphin, Manitoba, Trotz never played a minute of professional hockey as a player. He was in the coaching game for the first time at the tender age of 22 and he undertook his first gig as a head coach a year later.
These days, Trotz is known as one of the most established coaches in the NHL. He is one of only four coaches to ever win 500 or more games with the same NHL franchise. But his whole coaching career could have gone off the rails at any number of junctures along the way, before he even got to Nashville. That it did not is a credit to him, though he quickly deflects that credit to his wife, Kim (“she’s the rock of the family,” he says) and a handful of hockey lifers who saw something special in Trotz and believed in his coaching abilities.
Let’s begin by flashing back to the late summer of 1982. David Poile has just been hired as the Capitals’ general manager and the team is preparing for training camp, having missed the playoffs in each of its first eight seasons in the league. A small but strong and fierce blueliner, just a couple of months past his 20th birthday, is in the Caps’ Hershey training camp at the behest of the late Jack Button, the team’s director of player personnel in those days.
The blueliner spots Button sitting up in the stands, talking to another gentleman.
“As a 20-year-old,” recalls Trotz, who was the aforementioned blueliner, “I got invited to the Washington Capitals training camp by Mr. Jack Button, who was director of player personnel. That was the year that David Poile got hired. I got to camp and David Poile was sitting in the stands with Mr. Jack Button. I did not know David Poile at the time. I went up in the stands and I saw Mr. Button and he was talking to a gentleman. I didn’t know who it was, but it was David.
“I said, ‘Mr. Button, it’s Barry Trotz.’
“And he goes, ‘I know who the hell you are, I invited you.’
“And I go, ‘Well, I just wanted to thank you for having me come to camp. I’m going to make it real hard for you to let me go, and I just want to thank you.’
“And he goes, ‘Son, the only reason that you’re here is that you might be a good minor league leader or coach some day.’
“At 20 years old, that’s really not what I wanted to hear. But I’m glad he told me that.”
Trotz was released from camp before the Caps even played their first preseason game. That quick visit to Caps training camp was as close as he ever got to having a pro career. A back injury suffered while playing baseball put an end to his hockey career once and for all, but Trotz’s coaching career started when he was hired to assist the late Wayne Fleming at University of Manitoba in 1984-85. After a season at that post, he moved up to serve as coach and GM of another team, the Dauphin Kings of the junior A Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
“Wayne Fleming got me into coaching I pushed pucks for Wayne and learned the game,” says Trotz. “Wayne was a great guy, he was always handing me an article someone wrote about coaching and having me read it, and then in the spring he asked me, ‘Have you ever been to Roger Neilson’s camp?’ He just kept putting stuff in front of me and talking hockey and I kept getting really involved in it. And then I got a phone call from Dauphin.
“I was 22 at the time. The team there was broke, they were in debt and they had no players. So when that happens, they phone the local kid to come home and try to fix it, but they can’t pay you anything, or very little. I was the coach and GM at 22 in Dauphin. So I started, I took on the challenge.
“I called mom and dad and told them I really wanted to do it because I might not get another chance to do it, but that they weren’t going to pay me anything. So I moved back home and was the coach and GM. After a while, I needed to get some money in the coffers, so I worked part-time in a clothing store. And I actually got some good duds from there for the coaching gig, too.”
That stint in the haberdashery and his days of working on the railroad were the only jobs Trotz has had outside of hockey in his adult life.
“In the summers my dad would get me a part-time job,” Trotz reflects. “He worked as a mechanic on the railroad. They had these summer jobs, they were called ‘extra gangs.’ In the summer in Canada, there would be these gangs and you’d live in these rail cars. You’d be in the middle of nowhere and you’d exchange the ties, you would straighten the tracks, you would pound spikes and you would shovel the ballast.
“I did that for a couple of years and was paid really good money. You worked from four in the morning until four in the afternoon – 12-hour days – and you’d work four of those and get the next three off. It was good. It really built me up because I was 149 pounds when I started playing in the Western Hockey League. It helped me build my upper body. I trained when I was out there.
“There was no TV; you had a radio and maybe a Walkman back then. I would actually do my running and training down the track in my work boots. If you tried to wear runners it would tear your feet apart. So I used to run in my work boots up and down the track, because there was nothing else to do. You’re in the middle of nowhere for four days, and then they would haul you back into town. I spent all day pounding spikes. I was as strong as anybody.”
Trotz has known Kim for most of his life, but their relationship began to get serious around the time his coaching career got started.
“I was in grade four the first time I discovered girls, and my wife was my first crush in grade four,” says a smiling Trotz. “We started dating when I was maybe 17. We’ve been married 25 years and have been together for 32. She’s the rock. She keeps me in order. She’s my boss. She’s a good mom, she’s solid and she’s low maintenance. Don’t mess with the kids, because she is a bear, especially with [youngest son] Nolan. She is awesome.”
Trotz’s desire to be closer to Kim was at the root of his next coaching move.
“I got the [Dauphin] team out of debt and did pretty well,” he remembers. “I ended up putting a lot of money in the bank so that they’d go forward. I built a real young team up. I had a lot of friends in town who helped me because it’s a community based team. We got it back on track. I was getting a lot of props for what I had done, but I wanted to get closer to Kim. She was about four hours away in Winnipeg going to school.”
Trotz was working without a contract in those days, and when the Dauphin executive committee opted to open up the position to others, he began to look elsewhere himself.
“The executive committee decided to put it out to everyone to see if they could find a different candidate,” says Trotz. “They weren’t firing me, but they were opening it up for anyone else. I didn’t think that was quite kosher. I phoned our No. 1 rival, because back then you didn’t have contracts or anything like that.”
That No. 1 rival was the Portage Terriers, a team Dauphin and Trotz had bounced from the playoffs in 1986-87. Portage hired Trotz for the 1987-88 season about an hour after he placed the call to them.
“So I moved a little closer to Kim,” says Trotz. “I spent the whole summer working for Portage and putting together a pretty strong team. I spent my time recruiting and doing all the right things.
“Wayne Fleming went on a sabbatical to Italy, and the University of Manitoba job opened up. He said, ‘I really think you should apply for this job. I know they’re going to give it to you. You’ve been here before, I’m going on a sabbatical and I think it would be a great learning experience for you.’”
Before he even had a chance to step behind the Portage bench, Trotz informed the team brass that he was going to apply for the U. of Manitoba job because he thought it was a step up, and that he wanted to have a career in coaching. But also said he would continue to work and recruit for Portage in the meantime.
Trotz got the university job and the Terriers hired another coach. The team that Trotz built for Portage that summer ended up going to the Manitoba junior final and knocking out Dauphin along the way.
As the head man at U. of Manitoba in 1987-88, Trotz knew he had found his calling.
“When I really started to get an education in coaching and when I really knew I was going to be a coach for a long time was my year at University of Manitoba,” he remembers. “The [other] coaches [I was competing against] were George Kingston, Peter Anholt and Clare Drake. Coaching against those minds back then, I realized how much I needed to learn. Coaching against those guys was incredible. They were outstanding individuals. I was a kid coaching against what I considered to be hockey legends. And they didn’t ignore me; they gave me all the advice I wanted. That was pretty exceptional.
“Wayne was supposed to go for two years, and he came back after a year. At that time, Jack Button phoned me and said, ‘We’re looking for a part time scout in Manitoba,’ and I was doing that anyway. So Jack hired me, so I was a part time scout and a coach at University of Manitoba. It was great experience. Wayne came back, and Jack asked me if I would like to come on full time [as a scout]. Well, I was having pretty good success coaching at that time and I was moving pretty quickly. I wasn’t too sure I wanted to do that. But my wife, who’s the rock said, ‘I wouldn’t discount this. I think it’s something you should look into.’
“I think we signed a three-year contract [with the Capitals]. I was talking to a guy named Greg Kvisle at the time. He asked me if I would consider being the assistant GM and the assistant coach for the Moose Jaw Warriors. My wife said not to discount the scouting thing. I think the way it set up with Jack was that it was a three-year contract but that I had an out clause after a year, in case I wanted to take the Moose Jaw job.”
Instead Trotz took a break from coaching, and watched hundreds of games a year as a scout for the Capitals. Button made Trotz the team’s head western scout, and he had a hand in Washington landing WHL netminders Olie Kolzig and Byron Dafoe with the team’s first two picks in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft.
Trotz and Kim were married by now, and they had started their family with the arrival of daughter Shalan.
“Jack moved me from Winnipeg to Regina so I could do more of the Western League,” recalls Trotz. “A year after that, he asked me to move to Vancouver and be the head western scout, and so I did that. At that point in time, we had our first child, Shalan, and we were about to buy a house. I had a year left on my contract and we were about to go to closing on the house.
“My wife said, ‘You should call Jack, just in case.’ And I said, ‘He moved us the last two years and made me the head western scout. I don’t think he is going to move me across the country or anything like that.’ And she said, ‘What’s it going to hurt?’ That was the year  the draft was in Vancouver. So I phoned Jack. And he said, ‘I was going to talk to you when I got there next week for the draft. How would you like to come to Baltimore and be an assistant coach [of the AHL Baltimore Skipjacks] and do some scouting as well?’
“Well, that was exactly perfect. I would be scouting and coaching. I talked to my wife; she was a dental hygienist and she was making really good money. I was making okay money. Between the two of us, we were going pretty good for that age. So we went to Baltimore. The first couple of years we struggled because she couldn’t get a green card; we just didn’t get that done. We didn’t get a lot of help and instruction on that, so we struggled, plus we had a baby.
“Then I became the head coach. [Head coach] Robbie Laird was a great teacher, but we didn’t have a really great team. When they let Robbie go, we had some bad guys on the team. It was right at the tail end of the season; there were only six or seven games left. They made me the interim coach to finish up, but I had no help, no assistant. We finished out pretty good. I remember we got Steve Konowalchuk [from Portland of the WHL] and he helped a lot. I think we won five of six or were 4-1-1.
“I met with David at the end of the season. He sort of laid into me because we didn’t make the playoffs, and I just took it. He said he didn’t know what he was going to do; he said he was going to talk to [Skipjacks owner] Tom Ebright. I thought I was gone.”
Looking back on this period now, Trotz identifies it as a turning point in his career. He had only coached a handful of games as a head coach at the pro level, but he felt like he was on the verge of being let go and heading back to an uncertain future in Canada.
“We didn’t have much money,” Trotz remembers. “Kim used to go home to Canada in the summers to work as a dental hygienist and I would work the development camp and hockey schools just to make ends meet. I thought we were done; I didn’t even think we could afford to move. I thought we were history. I went home and I was floored. It had never happened to me. I didn’t know how we were going to get our stuff back to Canada.
“I came back on Monday and David said, ‘You’ve got a huge friend in Baltimore [in Ebright]. I’m going to give you one year to see what you can do.’ David gave me 17 kids out of junior and three veteran players [for the 1992-93 season]. We struggled all season, but we made the playoffs the last couple days of the year. We took that Binghamton team that had 124 points to seven games in the playoffs.”
Binghamton had Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Zubov. They had 29 more points than any other team in league, and more than twice as many wins as Baltimore and 56 more points. Pushing that team to seven games in the Calder Cup playoffs proved that Trotz could push the right coaching buttons in his first season as a pro head coach.
The Baltimore team moved to Portland for 1993-94, and the newly minted Portland Pirates clawed their way to the Calder Cup championship. Two years later, the Pirates made it to the Cup final. By the time the 1996-97 season ended, Trotz had reached the playoffs in each of his five seasons as a pro coach. But there were changes at the top of the Capitals’ organization. Poile had been fired after 15 years on the job in D.C. George McPhee was hired to replace him.
“When David got fired,” remembers Trotz, “I talked to George at the AHL meetings in Hilton Head. He said, ‘You’re fine, you’ll be there, you’re under contract.’ I didn’t know if I was reading it right, but I thought he might want to have his own guy there after my contract was up. So when David got the Nashville gig, I phoned George and said, ‘If there is any opportunity with Nashville, would you allow me the opportunity to talk to David about the potential of coming on with the Predators?’
“So I phoned David after he got the job, and he said, ‘As a matter of fact I just called George. I want to see if you’d be interested in this Nashville thing.’ Tom Ebright had passed away that summer. I still had my house in Baltimore and Killer [Kaminski] was living in it. We were going to Tom’s funeral and it was in Mt. Gretna [Penn.]. We met in Mt. Gretna and we were driving back. David jumped in with me and we talked all the way. He said, ‘I’m going to talk to George, and what I’d like you to do is to scout the first year and then become the team’s coach.’
Most everyone had counseled Poile to hire an experienced NHL coach for the expansion Predators, but he did the opposite.
“I give a lot of props to David for that,” says Trotz. “That’s my story to get to the National Hockey League.”
Returning from the funeral of one of his many champions, Trotz found out that he was an NHL head coach. It was probably fitting that Trotz was literally on the road when he learned that he had finally ascended to the top of his profession at the age of 35.
Dauphin. Portage. Winnipeg. Regina. Vancouver. Baltimore. Portland. That’s roughly the route Trotz took to get to Nashville, where he spent a third of his life and established himself as one of the best coaches in the business. He’s in Washington now, the organization where it all started for him.
Wayne Fleming, Jack Button, Clare Rothermel, David Poile, Tom Ebright and others continue to have an impact on Trotz to this day.
The work ethic and leadership qualities that Button saw in Trotz more than three decades ago are still what drive him. They drove him to keep going all these years when it might have been easy to give up the dream and get a real job somewhere.
Like in a haberdashery.
“That moment where you feel like you’re chasing a dream, and maybe you got the opportunity and you failed,” says Trotz, remembering the days of agony 20 years ago when he waited on pins and needles for Poile and Ebright to decide on his future. “It put perspective into it, because if it was just me, I would have just kept going. It would have been a speed bump. But now I had a child and I had a wife. I think I am a little more of a selfless person, and when I was effecting people’s lives in a negative way, that was the first time I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not in the right business.’
“But when David gave me that chance, I wasn’t going to mess it up. I knew it might be my last chance. I thought I knew more than I did. That’s youth. I said, ‘I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to get this done.’
“We made it. We got in and at the end, I think David ended up being impressed. One thing I wasn’t going to be was outworked. If I get outworked, then shame on me. There are going to be better and smarter people, more efficient people. But they’re not going to outwork me.”