Surviving, succeeding the Nashville way
1982, Washington Capitals training camp. A young defenseman arrives for a tryout. He approaches legendary scout Jack Button up in the stands, thanking him for inviting him to camp and giving him a shot at being an NHL player.
"Oh, you're not going to make the NHL," Button tells him flatly.
Button figures the 19-year-old might make a good minor league leader or coach someday.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Barry Trotz never played a single NHL game.
"When you're 19 years old, that's not exactly what you want to hear," Trotz said, as he recalled his camp tryout with a chuckle over lunch in downtown Nashville recently.
But Button turned out to be right.
Trotz joined Wayne Fleming's coaching staff at the University of Manitoba and eventually took over as head coach. While Trotz was learning the ropes, the Capitals approached him about doing some scouting for them in Western Canada. The Capitals' GM at the time was another young man cutting his teeth in the NHL, David Poile.
"Jack saw something in Barry," Poile told ESPN.com in a recent interview. So, too, did Poile, son of longtime hockey executive Bud Poile.
The Caps eventually hired Trotz to coach their AHL team in Baltimore, and he moved with the team to Portland, Maine. Meanwhile, Poile went on to become the first GM of the expansion Nashville Predators. He asked many of his peers and colleagues about whom he should hire as his first coach. Unequivocally, they told him to hire someone with a lot of NHL experience to help the team get through the growing pains. Poile gratefully took the suggestions and then hired Trotz, a man with absolutely no NHL experience.
The logic was simple. Someone had once given Poile a chance to prove he could do the job and he extended that opportunity, not just to Trotz and his coaching staff, but also to his scouting staff.
Were his peers surprised? Poile chuckled.
No. In fact, no one said anything. But after more than a decade, that is pretty much the Nashville way. Neither reviled nor revered but somehow easily ignored, the Predators continue to exist on the fringes of the league, defying critics and skeptics, marching to their own tune. As one longtime team employee suggested, the Preds are "the ugly stepson of the NHL."
A team often assimilates the qualities and characteristics of its coach and/or general manager, and nowhere is that more evident than in Nashville, where Trotz and Poile have presided over the considerable ups and downs of the franchise from its inception in the summer of 1997.
It would be trite, not to mention inaccurate, to suggest the two are like an old married couple. It's not like that at all. But their clearly established bond is something that defies the common tendency in the NHL, which is to change and change and change again at the first sign of trouble or at the first misstep.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, there have been 143 head-coaching changes in the NHL since Nashville hired Trotz in August 1997, including all switches to interim coaches. Only Buffalo's tandem of GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff have stuck it out together longer (by only a matter of weeks), as both Trotz and Poile began their work the season before the Predators actually took the ice in the fall of 1998.
"Maybe his personality fits my personality," Poile suggested. "He and I both have real good patience."
Trotz likes to say working with Poile all these years has been like going to "hockey university." He's scouted, he's helped do minor league contracts, he's seen the inside of the hockey machinery and how it runs.
"He gets it," Poile said. "We're never into unrealistic conversations."
That means Trotz never wandered into Poile's office and suggested getting in on the Ilya Kovalchuk talks before the March 3 trade deadline.
But Trotz does know Poile is in his corner. "He's had my back many a time when we've been down and out," Trotz said.
It would be a grand understatement to suggest that neither Poile nor Trotz is given to bombast. Former NHL player and coach Terry Crisp, another of the many staffers who have been on board for the duration in Nashville (he is currently a TV analyst for the club), said Poile is like a duck -- calm, serene on the surface, "but paddling like heck underwater."
Crisp said he can count on one hand the number of times Trotz has exploded in public, but every once in awhile, Crisp will ask a player what it was like behind closed doors in the dressing room after a particularly bad outing, and the player will joke that he might need an extra coat of paint or two.
But those are the exceptions, not the rule.
Take the Preds' loss to San Jose on March 11. They led the Western Conference leaders 4-2 after two periods but then gave up six goals in the third to lose 8-5. If naysayers were looking for a moment that might suggest the Preds were ready to fall out of the West jumble, this would have been it. Instead of ripping his team, Trotz cracked a couple of jokes and told his guys to move on. The next night, they beat Anaheim 1-0. Two nights later, they beat Los Angeles 3-2. Then they were off to the races, winning six in a row.
As of Thursday morning, the Predators were 11-5-1 since the Olympic break and were in fifth place in the Western Conference with 94 points. Not many people gave the Predators a shot at making the playoffs, not with Anaheim, St. Louis and Los Angeles looking to join Detroit, Chicago, San Jose, Vancouver and Calgary as teams that appeared pretty certain to make the playoffs.
But here they are, like they always seem to be, quietly in the middle of things.
It doesn't bother Trotz that people are surprised. It does bother him that people suggest they are overachieving. "We find ways to win," he said. "We have good players here."
Sometimes it's hard to know if consistency bleeds into complacency when these long-term relationships take root in a market where there may not be as much external pressure to make dramatic changes in management or coaching. But it doesn't seem to be the case here.
"I think he's just gotten better and better every year," Poile said of Trotz.
Assuming the Preds qualify for this spring's tournament, it might surprise people to know they will have made the playoffs in five of the past six seasons. Given the change in ownership and the financial restrictions imposed first by outgoing owner Craig Leipold, who gutted the team to make it more salable, and then by new ownership, it is not an insignificant feat. On the other hand, the team has yet to win a single playoff round. In four playoff series, two against Detroit and two against San Jose, the team has won a total of six games.
Even now, Trotz shakes his head at the series against Detroit in the spring of 2008. The Preds knocked Hall of Fame netminder Dominik Hasek out of the box. They had a couple of bad breaks on goals, had some injuries and lost in six. "I felt that we had them," Trotz said.
The Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Each of the past three playoff series has been marked by some sort of crippling injury, whether it was netminder Tomas Vokoun's rare blood disorder or captain Jason Arnott's concussion problems or the loss of various key components like Martin Erat or Peter Forsberg or Steve Sullivan. But if there is another trait that bonds Trotz and Poile, it's the absence of a complaining gene.
Trotz is the father of four children between the ages of 9 and 20, the youngest of whom, Nolan, has Down syndrome. He is a tireless volunteer on behalf of local charity work, and specifically on behalf of charities connected to Down syndrome. He recently held a charity auction that brought in close to $41,000. Many of the items that were up for sale were procured through Trotz's efforts.
The players -- many of whom donated items for the auction -- take their cues from Trotz and Poile, which means looking at things like slumps and contracts and payroll with the correct perspective.
Veteran winger Sullivan, the first true "star" acquired by the Predators back at the 2004 trade deadline, said Trotz has an open-door policy. Now, you may not necessarily like what is said to you when you walk through the door, but you always know you're welcome to come in.
"If you have issues, he wants you to come in," said Sullivan, who has availed himself of that opportunity in the past. As for the coach's longevity, Sullivan said simply, "I think for the last five years there's been no reason to make a change."
We like to put imperatives on situations like this.
For instance, it would be easy to say that it is imperative the Predators win at least one round to secure their future in Nashville, or, better yet, go on a long playoff run to kill off the talk of the team pulling up stakes and moving to Kansas City or southern Ontario or wherever once and for all.
"That's what brings your whole city together," said Crisp, who coached the Calgary Flames to their only Stanley Cup win in 1989. Crisp recalls how the run to the Super Bowl for the hometown Titans galvanized the city in 2000. "That united the city for the next three years. That's what we need right now."
The possibilities are endless if the Predators were to embark on such a run. Win a couple of rounds and all of a sudden you've got money in the bank, money that could be spent to keep defenseman Dan Hamhuis in the fold or bring in a top free-agent scorer. Win a couple of rounds and free agents will suddenly give Nashville a real look because it will be seen as a desirable destination. Win a couple of rounds and it reinforces to players like sudden scoring sensation Patric Hornqvist or Shea Weber or Ryan Suter that this is a place to commit to long-term.
"I think it would be very important in the sense it would galvanize our franchise," Trotz said. "We've had to do it a lot differently than other contenders. It would validate that you can do it this way."
In some ways, Hamhuis typifies the entire Predators organization. Hamhuis, like most of the Predators' fine blue line, is homegrown. The 12th overall pick of the 2001 draft is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and was the subject of trade rumors at the March deadline. But Poile opted to keep Hamhuis, because the GM believed it gave the team the best chance not just of making the playoffs but winning once it got there.
"We talked about that before the season even started," Hamhuis told ESPN.com. "Our franchise has matured enough that just making the playoffs shouldn't be a goal. In our room, we know we've just been playing to our potential."
Poile paused when asked if there's a way to quantify how important a playoff run would be. "No, there's not," he said.
It's the right answer, because if it doesn't happen, what then? Pack it in? Fire the coach? Quit? No; at least not likely. If such a run doesn't happen this spring, it will be back to the drawing board for Poile and Trotz, and they'll take another run at it next season.
"I think we're always trying to earn our stripes," Poile said. "We just have to do it our way."
Yes, the Nashville way. Nothing wrong with that.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.