ARLINGTON — It will be a moment unprecedented in Washington sports history.
Just eight months ago, Barry Trotz was the toast of D.C., the man who labored four years to get the Capitals a Stanley Cup and finally did it. The champagne-and-beer-soaked celebration lasted almost a week.
But before the end of June, before the parade confetti had been swept from Constitution Avenue, Trotz was gone, a contract impasse too much for either side to overcome. He resigned with Washington’s permission and landed a new job with the New York Islanders, who visit Capital One Arena for the first time this season on Friday.
There will be a video tribute to Trotz during the first period and you can expect a standing ovation from Capitals fans for the man who delivered them a title for the first time in franchise history.
After that, two teams battling for first place in the Metropolitan Division will try to resume an important January game. The Capitals have slipped lately. The Islanders, who lost star center Jon Tavares in free agency to the Toronto Maple Leafs, are the surprise of the NHL. Trotz at midseason is a candidate for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
“We see every game as a normal game and try to get ready as a normal game whether there’s a former coach or it’s a playoff game,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “But obviously we all know what Barry’s done for us here as players and for us as a city and it’s pretty special so I’m sure he will be well-received here tomorrow and he should be. He deserves it.”
There have been other prominent athletes and coaches who have returned to the District. But nothing like this. Joe Gibbs coached the Redskins to three Super Bowl titles in 11 seasons and they reached a fourth. Burned out and ready to pursue other interests, including his NASCAR team and a brief stint as a television analyst, Gibbs eventually returned to coach the Redskins in 2004. One local newspaper headlined the seismic event “Return of the King.” But Gibbs came back as the Redskins coach, not as an opponent, and it was 11 years after he’d left. He led Washington to the playoffs twice before retiring for good after the 2007 season.
Championships aren’t exactly common in this city. Dick Motta led the Bullets to an NBA title in 1978 and to the NBA Finals in 1979 before the team fell apart in the 1979-80 season. Frustrated, Motta received permission to speak to other NBA teams before the start of the 1980-81 season and was hired by the expansion Dallas Mavericks.
But he had left on poor terms with his former players and the memories of the championship season had dimmed by then. The Mavericks were outmatched when Motta returned to Capital Centre on Nov. 6, 1980 in a 116-95 loss to the Bullets. His return didn’t exactly capture the city’s imagination, either. Only 6,285 fans were there to see it.
Many thousands more will be on hand when Trotz and the Islanders play the Capitals on Friday. Washington won the first meeting on Nov. 26 in Brooklyn. Trotz was presented with his championship ring in the Capitals’ locker room before that game. The expected ovation from the Capital One Arena crowd will put a final closure on the most memorable season of his hockey career.
Prominent athletes have also returned to Washington after distinguished careers. Gilbert Arenas was a beloved character for the Wizards from 2003 to 2010, but injuries kept those teams from a deep playoff run and an infamous locker room gun incident led to a 50-game suspension in 2010. The following year Arenas was traded to the Orlando Magic and received a warm ovation when he returned to Capital One Arena on Feb. 4, 2011. But those mid-to-late 2000s Wizards were looked upon as a self-destructive group winning just one playoff series and never more than 45 games.
Peter Bondra played 961 games for the Capitals before they traded him to the Ottawa Senators in the midst of a total teardown. He was traded Feb. 18, 2004 and was back in Washington by March 8, where the fans serenaded him with “Let’s Go, Bondra!” chants. But again the atmosphere was muted given the Capitals had already traded almost all of their veteran players that season and wouldn’t make the playoffs again until 2008. They lost 4-1.
Trotz ranks second all time in coaching wins with the Capitals (205) behind Bryan Murray (346) despite coaching in Washington just four years. He led the team to two Presidents’ Trophies and three Metropolitan Division titles to go with that Stanley Cup. The ring ceremony was special, he told his former team in a moving speech before the Nov. 26 game. His Islanders have won 13 of their past 16 games and are now just one point behind the Capitals in the division, making Friday's game especially meaningful.
“For him it’ll be a pretty emotional night,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “We went through a lot, he was here for a long time, ups and downs, he was part of the community and I think he’s well respected by the community of D.C., so it will be a great moment for him and his family. He deserves it. He put in a lot of time and worked extremely hard to get this team to accomplish what we did last year. It will be good to see him again - and to take him down.”
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