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.