Barry Trotz still has a pretty vivid memory about the 1997 summer day when the expansion Nashville Predators hired him to be their first coach.
Naturally, there was an immediate sense of excitement when general manager David Poile gave him his first chance to go behind the bench of an NHL club, although Trotz would still have to wait more than a year for his team to actually play a game. But the self-professed rink rat from Winnipeg never made it to the league as a player and had spent the previous dozen years coaching various junior, college and minor-league teams, so even the thought of getting to the NHL was a pretty big deal to him.
|The Preds stick with their original coach Barry Trotz despite little success. (Getty Images)|
Then the reality set in.
"I was obviously very thrilled when I walked out of the office," Trotz said in an interview. "I called my wife to let her know, but then I got scared for a second and thought 'Did I bite off more than I can chew?'"
Apparently not, because in a profession that is not exactly known for longevity, Trotz is still coaching the Predators. No one in league history has ever spent more time behind the bench of an expansion team, and Buffalo's Lindy Ruff is the only current coach who has been in his job longer, having been hired by the Sabres three weeks before Trotz was brought on.
Meanwhile, there have been 150 coaching changes around the league since Trotz arrived. What makes his stretch even more remarkable, at least on the surface, is that Nashville has never gone beyond the first round of the playoffs and didn't even get to the postseason for its first five seasons of play.
But Nashville has produced three 100-point campaigns since and might have upended eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago's run last spring were it not for a devastating late giveaway by veteran forward Martin Erat in the pivotal Game 5 of the first round. It may have been the most crushing defeat for the organization and especially for Trotz, but without any significant offseason player upgrades, the Predators are on pace for another 100-point season that has them in the thick of the playoff race in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
"The biggest thing is that players buy into what he's selling," said Predators broadcaster Terry Crisp, who won the 1989 Stanley Cup coaching the Calgary Flames.
Even so, at times it does seem like Nashville is doing it with smoke and mirrors given that its leading scorer is defenseman Shea Weber, who isn't among the league's top 100 point getters. But the Predators' style under Trotz has never involved much flash, instead relying on strong goaltending, grinding and most important the strong work ethic the coach has always stressed.
It's part of the organizational DNA, a philosophical approach that starts at the top with Poile, and has by necessity as much as design been about stability and patience. Those qualities are rare in a world where results are generally expected and demanded almost immediately. But Nashville is a unique case, a low-budget and often financially challenged team that is constantly using castoffs and young players drafted and developed in the system to replace all-star types lost for money reasons.
"We don't want excuses and we don't panic when things aren't going our way," Trotz says. "But certainly our lifeline has been our scouts and development process."
In many ways though, that forces Trotz to start over repeatedly. Yet year in and year out, he leads a team that is considered one of the league's toughest to play against.
"It hasn't always been an easy situation for them, but he finds a way to make it work," said Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun, who spent eight seasons -- arguably the best of his career -- with the Predators before being traded in a salary move.
"The thing about Barry is he understands what he needs to do to, when it's the right time to scream and when it's the right time to pat somebody on the back. His biggest asset is that aside from hockey knowledge is that he's a good guy, so you're willing to go that extra mile for him. People respond to him."
And that might be a secret of Trotz's ability to survive in a business where jobs tend to be lost when players start tuning out a coach, something that often seems inevitable when teams have gone through a few seasons of frustration. Trotz, though, says he doesn't subscribe to that theory. Or to the one that says coaches have to change their approach to stick around.
"People say that you fire the coach and everything will be fine, but coaches aren't that different and systems are basically the same," Trotz said. "The message is always heard.
"Now sometimes the players don't want to listen to it so you have to send the message in a different way, but the message is always the same in the way we want to play and what is expected. It's just the Nashville way of doing things."