In his early days as an NHL coach, the Nashville Predators' Barry Trotz mirrored actor Edward G. Robinson, who played gangster tough-guy roles. Trotz could be that way too when he was just starting out – gruff, hard, a demanding in-your-face taskmaster who wanted to control everything, who kept pushing and wouldn't let up.
Trotz had an epiphany in his first year, the expansion year, when the Predators inherited a handful of castoffs from their NHL brethren and were badly overmatched virtually every night.
“At first, I'd be barking at guys and losing my mind when things weren't going real well, and I noticed, when I did that, they got worse and worse,” Trotz said. “I hadn't figured out, these were all fringe players from all the other teams. What I've learned is if you're like that, it gets old in a hurry.
“I really think that coaching now is like being a business leader; you've got to create an environment where people feel they have a voice. It's not the old days, where it was ‘my way or the highway.' Players are owners in the clubs now ... and my job is to get these 23 or 24 individual businesses to work together.”
Further proof of how uncertain a profession NHL coaching can be occurred this week, when the Calgary Flames became the 14th team in the past 12 months to make a change behind the bench. This is the prevailing NHL wisdom, where the majority of teams apply a turnstile approach to their coaching hires and fires, believing that when things go badly, it is easier to change one coach than 20 players.
Then there are the Predators, swimming against the tide. Trotz is in his 14th season with the team, and is the second-longest tenured coach in the NHL after the Buffalo Sabres' Lindy Ruff.
Originally from Winnipeg, the 49-year-old Trotz has seen the Predators through the lean expansion years; through the middle improving years, and now, with the 2012 playoffs under way, through a whole new chapter, the competitive years – a year in which Nashville is considered a legitimate threat to make a playoff splash.
The Predators have been surprisingly competitive for a while now – Nashville, San Jose and Detroit are the only teams in the league with 40 or more wins for seven years in a row.
And how they do it, with one of the smallest budgets in the league, in an organization perennially turning personnel over in order to keep the payroll balanced, is a juggling act, orchestrated by general manager David Poile and Trotz.
In July of 1997, when Poile was hired to be the first GM of the Predators, he called some of his peers who’ve previously run expansion teams, looking for advice.
“Everybody had the exact same thing to say,” Poile said. “They said: ‘Your team is going to be terrible and so you should probably get the most experienced coach you can, because he’ll cover up a lot of the sins of an expansion team.’
“I just thought no, ‘this is a time to give everybody a chance, not just the players, but the scouts, the office staff, everybody.’ I hired some really inexperienced scouts. I hired some new people to the industry. I said, ‘Barry’s done his thing, I can grow and work with Barry. We’ll go for a couple of years and we’ll improve as a team, he’ll improve as a coach, and we’ll get there together.’
“And that’s what happened.”
On many levels, Trotz sounds a lot like Bob Johnson, the legendary Calgary Flames’ coach, who coined the term ‘it’s a great day for hockey’ and never had a bad day in his life. With Johnson, as with Trotz, once you turn on the conversational tap, it just keeps flowing.
Johnson joined Calgary in 1982, soon after Poile left the Flames to run the Washington Capitals. There he found Trotz, a Regina Pats grad, at training camp on a tryout basis, but with no real chance of cracking the NHL lineup. However, Jack Button – father of Craig, then one of the Caps’ most trusted birddogs – saw something in Trotz that he liked and advised him that he had a future in the industry.
So Trotz returned home to Winnipeg and started at the University of Manitoba as an assistant on Wayne Fleming’s staff. Trotz then spent two seasons as head coach and GM of the Dauphin Kings juniors, before returning to the University of Manitoba as their head coach in 1987. The next year, Trotz began to scout Western Canada for the Caps, and who eventually brought him to their AHL affiliate in Baltimore as an assistant coach. From there, the team’s AHL franchise was shifted to Portland, and Trotz was elevated to the head coaching position, which is when Poile recruited him for Nashville.
Trotz remembers when he first received the job, going back to his hotel room to ponder the challenges that lay ahead.
“I thought, ‘I’m a rookie coach in a non-traditional market with an expansion team. Maybe I bit off more than I could chew,’” Trotz said. “That first year, we went into every game and I’d look at the lineup and I’d think, ‘how are we going to win this game?’ I think we won 28. And afterward, I was thinking, ‘how in the world did we ever win 28 games?’ It was a real fun group, and we worked really hard.”
Hard work has been a trademark of the Predators’ organization ever since. Trotz usually gets the most out of the players at his disposal, but he will dispute the widely held notion that his team perennially overachieves. His view is that there is no such thing as overachieving (“other than me marrying my wife,” he quips, sheepishly) because if you ultimately succeed at something, then the goal was always within your grasp.
“I just ask players to play to their potential, and that’s all,” Trotz said. “You want to put people in positions to succeed. What we’ve been able to do is look at a player and say, ‘what is your talent? What is your real talent?’
“Sometimes, there are certain guys that can’t do some things, so you accept them for what they can do and you try to push them closer to what you want them to do and then you try to put them with people that will help them do it.”
According to Poile, what separates Trotz from others caught in the revolving, hired-to-be-fired coaching door is his self-awareness and the fact that “there are no airs about him. There is no vanity. He’s self-deprecating. He’ll poke fun at himself if the situation is there.
“For me, more than anything else, I seized on how good a person he is. That trumps everything.
“Barry’s got a saying and I use it all the time too. He says, ‘always do the right thing.’ That’s what Barry’s always about. He always does the right thing.
“I’m not saying that, like a lot of married couples, there haven’t been highs and lows, on and off the ice, but I’ve never lost belief in Barry and I’ve always trusted in his judgment.”
According to Trotz, Poile deserves credit for not taking the easy way out when those rough patches occurred.
“There’s been times, in the past, when I thought, ‘gawd, I know I’m out of here, I’ve gotta be gone.’ Things were not going good and I knew there were pressures on David, but he’d come in and say, ‘fix it’ and we’d be able to turn it around. David showing just a little extra patience proved to be what we needed, because instead of giving a player or a group an out, he’d allow us to fix it and be stronger on the other end, because you’ve gone through hell a little bit together.
“It’s not about tearing it apart when you lose some games. It’s about bringing it together. When things aren’t going well, it’s easy to jump off the ship. The harder thing is to hold on to the ship in difficult waters – and keeping it on course.”
One of the challenges over the years in Nashville was the need to constantly change personnel to keep the team on budget. There have been ownership issues – for a time, it looked as though they were headed to southern Ontario in one of Jim Balsillie’s multiple attempts to crack the NHL ownership code. Sometimes a player would be lost simply because the Preds couldn’t meet his salary demands. Other times, changes were made deliberately to filter out players that didn’t fit the Predators’ culture.
Now, finally, the Predators fall into the ranks of genuine contender. The combination of the moves they’ve made to add Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad and Alexander Radulov; the maturing of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter; and the exceptional goaltending they get from Pekka Rinne makes them an interesting wild card – and in the unlikely position of being slight favourites in their opening-round series against the Detroit Red Wings, which stood 1-0 in Nashville’s favour going into Friday night’s second game of their Western Conference quarter-final series.
Gill – the former Montreal Canadiens’ player – has already formed a positive first impression of Trotz.
“In the time I’ve known him, he’s kind, he’s fair, he’s open, but he demands a lot,” Gill said. “He has systems that he wants you to be a part of – and he demands that from his players. He’s a guy you can go and talk to – not just about hockey, but about anything. He’s open. It’s been enjoyable so far.”
Weber, the team captain, says one of Trotz’s strengths in that he handles the preparation and then permits the leadership group to be “responsible for the work ethic and the chemistry.
“He’s a players’ coach too. He’s got an open door. You can go in there and talk to him; and he’ll come out and talk to you.”
Trotz says the strategy to empower the players is deliberate: “We give the players ownership. We don’t micromanage them. We ask them for their input and listen to their input and make it work. That’s part of the culture.
“Coaching is not about equality, it’s about inequality, but the one thing that should be equal is respect. Coaching, at this level, is not about X’s and O’s. The people at this level all know the X’s and O’s of the game.
“It’s about getting people to buy in to what you’re doing as a group. I have one simple rule. ‘I want you to get better because that makes us better. I want you to have a good career. I want you to have an understanding of what your potential is.’”
Ultimately, Poile knows the only way to get the Predators on the map is to make a longer run through the playoffs than they have in the past.
“We’ve been the underdog a long time,” he said. “We talk about that all the time in our organization – how to take our franchise to another level. We’ve had 20 sellouts this year. We’re doing well on the business side. On the hockey side, we’re making progress. It’s all tracking real well, but to use a poker expression, we’re all in right now. We were as aggressive as any team at the trading deadline. We’re as deep as we’ve ever been.
“We’re hoping this could be the year.”