Barry Trotz gave Predators their name, identity and foundation for NHL future
Remember this as Barry Trotz returns “home” Friday night as the coach of the Washington Capitals: The Nashville Predators wouldn’t be the Nashville Predators without him.
General manager David Poile hired Trotz to be the expansion franchise’s first coach in August 1997, more than a year before the first faceoff. The team settled on a logo – a saber-toothed skull, a reference to a fossil that had once been unearthed in downtown Nashville – before a name.
They brainstormed. They flipped through dictionaries and hockey books. Trotz looked through a Canadian Hockey League guide and found a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League called the Granby Predateurs.
“The Nashville Predators,” Trotz said. “That sounds pretty decent.”
The fans agreed. They ended up picking Predators instead of Ice Tigers, Fury or Attack.
Trotz had never played in the NHL. He had never coached in the NHL. He didn’t know it then, but he would end up playing a huge role in establishing the NHL in Nashville, keeping the NHL in Nashville and building the NHL in Nashville to the point …
Well, to the point where missing the playoffs two years in a row was unacceptable, to the point where he would be fired, take over another team and make this bittersweet trip.
“When I look back at it now, I think, ‘That was crazy,’ ” Trotz said this week. “When I went there, I was just trying to survive through that first year. I never thought in a million years that I would be there that long.”
Trotz helped build the franchise from the ground up. Poile, Trotz and assistant coach Paul Gardner were in the dressing room one day looking at carpet samples, agonizing over colors, when Gardner made a joke.
“It doesn’t matter,” Gardner said. “We won’t be around when they change the carpet.”
But they stuck around so long they changed the carpet at least twice – once because it had worn out, once because of a flood.
Yes, a flood.
Poile and Trotz lasted 17 years and 15 seasons together, and they weathered storms literally and figuratively – NHL lockouts, ownership issues, relocation threats, money problems and more.
Through it all, they sold the NHL where it had never been sold before, struggling to fill seats in bad times, making the arena rock with a country twang in good times. Trotz, a Winnipeg native, liked to say he fought “the war of Northern aggression.” As the coach, an affable guy and a good quote, he served as a day-to-day ambassador in the media. He promoted hockey to Nashville and Nashville to the hockey world.
“People don’t realize sometimes that this is a good hockey market,” Trotz told Canadian reporters in May 2011, when the Predators made the second round of the playoffs for the first time and faced the Vancouver Canucks. “The fans are very passionate.”
It wouldn’t have worked without winning. The Predators didn’t make the playoffs in their first five seasons. But they made it seven times in eight seasons after that, and they made two really good runs. In 2006-07, they added Peter Forsberg at the trade deadline and finished tied for the third-most points in the league. In 2011-12, they loaded up at the trade deadline and finished with the fifth-most points in the league. They were considered legit contenders.
The Atlanta Thrashers entered the NHL in 1999-2000, one season after the Predators did. They played in a much larger Southern city, and they left for a small Canadian city and became the Winnipeg Jets in 2011-12. They gave themselves no chance largely because they never won, making the playoffs only once, in 2006-07, and getting swept in the first round. Had the Thrashers done what the Predators did on the ice and vice-versa, maybe the Thrashers would still be in Atlanta and the Predators would be in Hamilton or Winnipeg.
“We had to have some degree of success to be successful in a non-traditional market, especially in a Southern market,” Trotz said this week. “You look around the National Hockey League, there’s a lot of markets that don’t draw well, didn’t make the playoffs forever. We did a lot of those things.”
No, they didn’t do enough. They wanted to thrive, not just survive. They set their sights on the Stanley Cup. As Trotz once said: “That’s the evolution. You want that. If you’re not in it to win it, what are you doing in this business?” They failed to make the Western Conference final, let alone the Cup final. They missed the playoffs the past two years. Finally, Poile fired Trotz.
In a sense, it was the final step of the evolution. It showed the Predators would operate like any other NHL team. Trotz ranked third all-time in games coached (1,196) and wins (557) with one franchise, and he had been a finalist for the Jack Adams Award twice. But what had he done for them lately? Trotz went as far as to say he was “glad” Poile made the move.
“It was time,” Trotz said. “It was time for a new face in Nashville and a new challenge for myself as well.”
Poile replaced Trotz with Peter Laviolette, and now the Predators are atop the NHL. Trotz could be bitter. He could be jealous. Laviolette has had a lot of things Trotz did not last season – a healthy Pekka Rinne (until this week), a more developed Filip Forsberg, help up front in James Neal and Mike Ribeiro. For all the talk of Laviolette’s up-tempo style and 5-on-5 results, Trotz said: “The system they’re using is the exact same system that we’ve used the last couple years there. They’ve added some pieces.” Maybe Trotz would have done the same with those pieces.
Trotz did not sound bitter, though. He said he was not jealous. He said Laviolette was doing a “fantastic job,” the players were buying in and he was rooting for the Predators. As hard as it was to leave Nashville personally – especially with three older children still living there and a special-needs child who struggled to adjust to a new environment – it turned out to be a good thing professionally when the Capitals hired him.
“It’s a fresh start for me,” Trotz said. “It’s good for me. I’m reinvigorated, if you will.”
It has reassured him and reinforced to everyone that he is a good coach, not just a coach who lasted a long time because of a unique situation. He has tried to change the Capitals’ culture and structure, and now he has them humming. They’re 14-1-4 in their past 19 games and 24-11-8 overall, third in the Metropolitan Division. He still has a chance to do what he didn’t in Nashville – break through in the playoffs.
But even if he wins the Stanley Cup, he won’t have the same legacy in Washington that he did in Nashville.
“I’m very proud of the fact I can go to maybe a hockey game with my grandkids maybe 10 years from now in Nashville, Tennessee, in a non-traditional market,” Trotz said. “Wins and losses are really minor. It’s that the great game of hockey is going to be in Nashville, Tennessee, for hopefully another hundred years.”
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