Barry Trotz returns to legendary legacy left in Nashville

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Josh Cooper
Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz diagrams a play during NHL hockey training camp on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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The Nashville Predators never had to worry about airport car service for newly acquired players.

Every time general manager David Poile made a deal of some sort, the same roundish man, with shoulders for a neck, would stand there waiting for the new player as he descended down the escalator at Nashville International Airport.

This was never part of Barry Trotz’s job description during his 15 seasons with the Predators. But he didn’t really care either. If anything it showed his players that when they arrived with the Predators, they were going to a place that operated differently and into a locker room mostly united behind the only coach the team had ever known.

“The few times I got traded it was pretty much ‘grab a cab and you’re on your own,’” former Predators forward Jerred Smithson said. “That again shows the type of person he is and he wants to welcome you right from the get-go and you know you’re not just a piece of meat out there. You’re a part of a hockey family. As a player to be welcomed like that would be a huge comfort.”

Trotz was a good hockey coach in Nashville. He was behind the bench for 1,196 games for the Predators and won 557 of them. He took teams with marginal talent and made them solid playoff-worthy outfits. That’s the clear, obvious and well-documented view on Trotz throughout his Predators tenure.

When he returns to Bridgestone Arena on Friday night as head coach of the Washington Capitals – his first time coaching against Nashville after the organization parted ways with him last spring – he should receive a hero’s welcome from Predators fan. Not just because of the games he won, but because of the human being he is.

“His honesty, his loyalty, the way he treats people. He gives everybody the time of day … everybody,” current Predators radio color analyst and former longtime Trotz assistant Brent Peterson said. “Not too many people will give you the time of day. Barry Trotz gives you the time of day."

Had you never tried a Philly cheesesteak before? As a reporter, you may have mentioned it to Trotz at a press scrum at morning skate in Philadelphia.

'Josh, you want to try the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia?' he asked when the team got back to its hotel. And then you sat around at some hole in the wall and talked about trips to Europe -- never hockey. 

Maybe as a reporter you found yourself mid-phone interview with Trotz while you were in Scottsdale, Arizona. 

'Josh, what are you doing today?' he asked. 

When the reporter said he was waiting to hear if Alexander Radulov was indeed coming back to the United States, Trotz then said 'Want to go to a spring baseball training game? If anything happens I'll probably get a call on my phone.'

Stress relieved. 

And it never felt like he did it because he was trying to get you to write positive stories about his team. He just wanted you to have a cheesesteak or legitimately felt like a baseball game would calm you down. 

Of course there were times it felt ethically weird, but ultimately, because it was Trotz you knew you weren't being used. He respected the job you did, and you respected the fact that he always gave you something to write about -- even on a slow news day. 

From local charities in Nashville to players past and present, to even former beat reporters (that’s me for four years), Trotz is one of the most genuinely honest and generous people in the National Hockey League, bar none. 

His personality enabled him to command respect from egos in his locker room, and help push teams, players and Nashville-based charitable groups to heights they all never knew. 

The Charity

Not long after it became public that Trotz’s son Nolan, born in 2001, had Down Syndrome, Anneliese Baron stalked the Predators coach.

She was trying to secure extra funding for the organization Best Buddies and its Nashville-based chapter. The charity aids people with “intellectual and developmental disabilities” per its website mission.

She messaged the Predators constantly to try to get through to Trotz, hoping that he could at least give a buck or two to her cause. Instead she got a whole lot more. In Trotz she got a friend for life and someone who helped add a face to Best Buddies in the Nashville area.

“He just dove in head-first after that,” she said. “He would get us items like hockey sticks and jerseys and everything signed by the players. He would pay for all of them.”

There would be times she would turn on the radio and Trotz would seamlessly reference Best Buddies, for no reason other than he genuinely cared about the organization.

Though it would be easy to say that Trotz was emotionally bonded to the group because of Nolan, and that certainly played a role, it was more than his son that kept Trotz with the organization. Once he became invested in Best Buddies and met its people, he made it his goal to push it as much as he possibly could because he shared its passion of helping.

“I said ‘sure, it sounds like a great organization, I have a horse in the race, I’ll do anything I can do help,’” Trotz said. “I saw the effect it had on people that Best Buddies touched.”

From Dan Hamhuis to Pekka Rinne to Shea Weber, they all lined up to be a buddy, and ultimately boosted the image of the charity in Nashville. They didn’t do it because they were told to. They did it because they liked Trotz and wanted to help a cause he championed.  

“He’s so humble and he genuinely cares,” Barron said. “When he does stuff to help people out, he does it so quietly not that he wants it to be flashy so people can say ‘look at what Barry Trotz did, he’s such a nice guy.’ He does it so he gets his own personal satisfaction. That’s all he needs for that.”

The Coaches

When Peterson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2003, Trotz and Poile never thought he should leave coaching to deal with his medical condition.

Oh, on the contrary. They instead made sure that Peterson had enough compassion and support to continue to do his job. A resignation? Not on Trotz’s or Poile’s watch.

“Before I knew I had Parkinson’s, we always got along fine. But after I was diagnosed it was, ‘This is what you need to do to do your job, and I’ll help you out, but this is what we need to do to get it done,’” Peterson said. “He was very good about making me a better coach and he got me better every day.”

Trotz often found himself having to be as much of a friend to his assistant coaches as a boss. 

Trotz was a caring advocate when Predators (and now Caps) goaltending coach Mitch Korn went through a divorce. He allowed former assistant Peter Horachek take a leave in 2010 to deal with prostate cancer. He aided Lane Lambert in his wife Andi’s fight against cancer.

Last season, as Andi underwent treatment, Lambert was told by the Predators to stay home from a long Western Canada trip.

“I like to be loyal to the people who have done really well. I think there’s that,” Trotz said. “You look at our coaching staff, it has a lot of components.”

And by treating his staff as people, Trotz commanded their loyalty.

Korn and Lambert joined him with Washington, and it wasn’t even a question for either. Both could have stayed in Nashville. But they wanted to work with the guy who had led them for a number of years.

Peterson’s illness forced him to leave the coaching game in 2011 – a total of eight years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis and many more than even he thought he would last.

“I don’t think I would have been able to stay as long with somebody else,” he said. “I think somebody else would have given me the chance, but I don’t think I would have gotten as much of a chance as long as I did just because the way Barry is.”

Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz, center, listens to forward Paul Gaustad (28) in the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. At right is forward Mike Fisher (12). (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz, center, listens to forward Paul Gaustad (28) in the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. At right is forward Mike Fisher (12). (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The Players 

There’s a strange separation between coach and player. Everyone is vested in success, but not exactly together.

The coaches coach and the players play. It’s the coach’s job to get the most out of the player but there are many layers that end up being involved – between management, agents, a union and even teammates.

Trotz basically blew through those barriers. He was so comfortable with his players, he’d sometimes call up Weber and Smithson while all three were at their summer homes in Kelowna, British Columbia for some food and a beer.

“He chats with you like a friend,” Smithson said. “He’ll sit there and BS and have a beer with you and talk about life. It’s not all about hockey.”

He squeezed every ounce of juice out of his players because they wanted to play well for him as well as themselves. This is an exceedingly rare quality for a coach/player dynamic in today’s day and age where money often seems to rule all.

Every coach isn’t perfect and Trotz has his faults. Not everyone is going to like him (cough Radulov, Andrei Kostitsyn and Sergei Kostitsyn cough). But that’s more the exception than the rule. To his players, he’s not Barry or Coach Trotz. He’s just “Trotzy” which sounds more like an “Archie” character than a steely-eyed hockey coach. 

“He would talk to you as a friend and not a player playing for him,” Smithson said. “He cared about you off the ice and he wanted to make sure things were good away from the rink. As a player you couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Barry Trotz and Josh Cooper. Photo via Sanford Myers Photography http://www.sanfordmyers.com
Barry Trotz and Josh Cooper. Photo via Sanford Myers Photography http://www.sanfordmyers.com

The Media

The Winter Classic was a great event for those who used to cover Trotz. It enabled the rest of the hockey world, on the NHL’s biggest regular season stage, to see what we had known for years. That beyond being a solid hockey coach, he’s just a good dude.

In the EPIX cable series leading to the Classic, Trotz looked like the world’s greatest dad in his day at the zoo with Nolan.

Throughout the game, Trotz seemed thoroughly overjoyed. It had nothing to do with his team winning, or the personal publicity he was getting. He was having a blast.

“I've got the first question. Did anybody have any fun?” He asked at the news conference after the game. “Yeah, I'm having a lot of fun right now.”

To hear that and see the gushing praise for Trotz and how his Capitals have formed an identity under his leadership isn’t a shock to me.

Is Trotz a great coach? No, at least not yet. He indeed has trouble developing young forwards. His inability to get past the postseason’s second round and his clashes with Radulov remain dark marks for him. 

But as Bob Dylan once said, “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.”

This is succinctly Trotz.

The separation between reporter and coach is often mixed with odd emotions. You're asking questions at tough times, and you can't hold back. It's your job to look at the person as a subject, not a friend.

For me, when the recorder is in front of Barry Trotz he's indeed a coach and I have to ask him questions about uncomfortable subjects for him -- poorly timed line changes, players who are underperforming, why I thought the Radulov and Kostitsyn suspensions were bad ideas.

But he understood that this was part of the job, and so did I. Turn the recorder off and to me, he's also just "Trotzy." 

He respected the fact that you're willing to ask him about his mistakes, more than getting defensive about them. And he also understood that when he merited praise, you justifiably gave it to him. 

My admiration for him has zilch to do with cheesesteaks or spring training games. When you spend a lot of time with a good coach as a beat reporter, you gain a rapport with him. Trotz and I had that -- or at least I hope. And he helped me up my game, just as I believe I challenged him. 

From organizations in Nashville to his coaching staff to his players, and even to those who knew him in a working capacity, he earns your respect. Partially through his triumphs as a coach, but mostly because he’s a good person. Thank you Barry. Relish today. It's your day. 

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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