NEW YORK — Barry Trotz’s voice wavered, but it did not break.
In four years with the Capitals he had addressed his players as a group thousands of times just like this one, including in the champagne-soaked, jubilant aftermath of the organization’s first Stanley Cup on June 7 in Las Vegas.
In the visiting locker room at Barclays Center in Brooklyn last month, no longer their coach but a competitor, Trotz accepted his championship ring from Washington captain Alex Ovechkin and gave an emotional speech that addressed the crushing pressure his former team had worked under until they finally broke through together. It was all worth it.
“I’ll die a happy man,” Trotz told them.
If there was any lingering resentment about how Trotz's time in Washington ended this past summer, it wasn’t on display in the dressing room before the Capitals played the New York Islanders on Nov. 26.
The defending champions are almost intact. Forward Jay Beagle signed as a free agent in Vancouver, backup goalie Philipp Grubauer was traded to Colorado and Trotz, with assistant coaches Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn, was hired by New York.
Trotz left Washington a champion, unable to accept the terms of a contract clause that kicked in for winning the title. He resigned instead and quickly accepted the challenge of coaching the Islanders, a franchise in transition after losing star center Jonathan Tavares in free agency over the summer.
“I want to do the same thing with this group, hopefully build something and share the same moments and the bond that happens when you win a championship,” Trotz said. “But it is closure. I’m a New York Islander. I’m not a Washington Capital.”
That’s a jarring statement from the man who holds the second-most victories in franchise history (205) behind only Bryan Murray (343). Washington won two Presidents’ Trophies under Trotz for the NHL’s best record and finally broke through with a Cup after three devastating second-round playoff exits.
But the Capitals had a coach-in-waiting in assistant Todd Reirden, who had been on staff with Trotz for four years. And the writing was on the wall when Trotz didn’t receive a contract extension in the summer of 2017. He would have to earn a new deal by going further in the playoffs than he ever had in 18 years as an NHL head coach, further than his players ever had.
They responded by winning a title, and there was money to be made elsewhere. If the relationship at times was rocky, there were no hard feelings at the end. There is the sport of hockey, which Trotz loves, and there is the business, and the two mingled together too often during a memorable but trying season.
“I knew that was an important year for myself, it was an important year for the whole franchise, it was an important year for the key players,” Trotz said. “I saw the pressures that were put on those young men. And there is. It was real.”
“When I first got to Washington you could feel it a little bit. By year three and four you could feel that. It was real. There was a tremendous amount of pressure. You get 16, 17,00 people and they’re all thinking ‘Okay here we go again.’ That’s the wrong energy. And I think I stated that. I said ‘I need your help. We need your help. Think positive. Help us out.’ Those guys battled through it. That’s the thing that I admire about them.”
But just six days after the parade down Constitution Avenue, Trotz quit. He planned to head to his cabin in British Columbia, but first met with Islanders team president Lou Lamoriello to hear his vision for the future there. Trotz then flew to Seattle and on to his cabin, where he talked to his wife, Kim, and family – daughters Shalan and Tiana, sons Nolan and Tyson - about the new opportunity. On June 21 he agreed to terms with New York.
That started a whirlwind summer for Trotz, which he called “the most hectic of my life.” He accepted the job with the Islanders, he moved Kim and Nolan, who is special needs, to New York, hired a coaching staff, Shalan had a destination wedding in Maui and Trotz had his day with the Stanley Cup in his hometown of Dauphin, Manitoba.
“I thought I’d put my feet up at my cabin for a few months and ended up back working days after that,” Trotz said. “It’s been good. I was a little worried that it would get to me at some point, but it hasn’t. I think I’m in a good spot, fortunate to be back on the island and hopefully we’re starting to grow something here.”
That remains to be seen without Tavares, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs and ranked ninth in the NHL in goals (18) entering play Monday. Yet Trotz has kept New York believing. To the shock of everyone, the Islanders began Monday in third place in the Metropolitan Division and in a playoff spot through 28 games. That could change quickly, but if he gets them there Trotz will be a heavy favorite for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
The day of the ring presentation – Washington won the game that night 4-1 – Trotz took to the ice at the Islanders’ practice rink in East Meadow, New York in his distinctive orange-and-blue warmups for the morning skate. He looped around shouting instructions at players as he always did in Washington. The color scheme has changed. The man has not.
“We’ve learned a lot already,” Islanders forward Matt Martin said. “There’s a lot of things to take from Barry and from his staff that they’ve come in and done with us. We’ve tried to soak everything in because his resume speaks for itself, his experience, his success.”
There’s a long way to go with 54 games left until the playoffs, so reality of life without Tavares might intrude. But it’s been a good start. Meanwhile, Trotz’s old team keeps chugging along. The Capitals are in first place again in the Metro, a division they’ve won three years in a row. Trotz told them he believes they can win another Cup – though drew smiles when he said they’d have to go through the Islanders first.
“I know it was tough for him to leave our team, but he did such a great job of bringing everyone together and really molding this group,” Washington defenseman Madison Bowey said. “It’s probably been the best team in the league for four years and he gave it his all to make sure we had that success. You can tell through his voice how emotional he was about that, how much he cared about us. That’s the coolest thing. He deserves this more than anyone - a true leader, a true coach.”
Trotz held the box with his ring inside and tapped it for emphasis as he gave his former players a speech from the heart. He said “Toddy, give me a hug, bud” and embraced Reirden – a moment that could have turned awkward given how things ended and Reirden’s status as the obvious successor.
Trotz touched on the memories made, the friendships forged. He told the players and staff he couldn’t wait for reunions in future years, where all the old stories will be told. There will never be any regrets for Barry Trotz.
“A really good chapter in my life and the relationships,” Trotz said. “What we went through the last four years was pretty incredible. The wins and losses and some of the hard times and some of the good times. We all shared that together. And that’s why that bond will be there forever with that group of young men.”
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