In what might qualify as the understatement of a generation, Barry Trotz said, “My situation is probably a little more unique than most.” Yes, a coach going into the opposing team’s dressing room, giving a rousing talk and getting solid applause two hours before a game . . . that would meet anyone’s reasonable definition of “unique.”
His “situation” is something that happens maybe once a generation or so: A coach wins a championship, then coaches against his title-winning team several months later. To the best of our recollection, the most recent example was Dick Williams managing the California Angels in 1974 against his recent champion, the Oakland Athletics. (Mike Keenan left the Stanley Cup-winning Rangers for the Blues in 1994, but the teams didn’t meet during the lockout-shortened season.)
The amazing part about Trotz is the way he has been able to balance his respect for the past — proudly accepting his Stanley Cup ring from the Capitals on Monday night during their first visit to Barclays Center — and his steadfast commitment to the present. During his address to the Washington players in the visitors’ locker room, Trotz held the box that contained his ring and said, “I’m going to try to do the same thing on the Island.”
How realistic that goal is remains to be seen, but there is no doubt about his sincerity. His whole speech hit chords with former players.
“It was pretty cool. It was a moment that I don’t think any of us will ever forget,” said a special favorite of Trotz, Tom Wilson, who scored two goals in the Capitals’ 4-1 win. “Trotzy said there will be some reunions and stuff, there will be time to catch up. But for now, we’re on opposite sides in a divisional rivalry.”
Trotz was proud to accept the ring, which is roughly the size of a doorknob. He is just as proud to wear the “NY Islanders” crest on his practice gear. He was dressed in the latter Monday morning when he said, “My loyalties are to the Islanders and that’s who I am now.”
With that same earnestness, he did a terrific job with the Capitals. He made a believer of Alex Ovechkin, an all-time great but an exasperating figure for previous Washington coaches. Trotz got the whole team to overcome the insecurity that came with its recurring playoff failures.
The Capitals seemed on the verge of another heartbreak as they faced Game 7 on the road in the Eastern Conference finals against the Lightning. Trotz kept them loose, so much so that Ovechkin proposed a change in the morning skate routine that day. Instead of having a player do a spirit-raising solo “hot lap” around the rink, the captain nominated Trotz to do the skating. Players loved it and laughed about it after they won that night.
His coaching keystone was and is defense, which has allowed the Islanders to do surprisingly well this season, Monday notwithstanding. “That’s what champions do, they find ways to get it done at the end of the day,” Trotz said. “We’re going to get there. We will get there.”
Of course, he had hoped to keep calling the Capitals “we,” but Washington did not meet his request for a contract extension and a raise.
So at Barclays Center on Monday, the home coach was a visitor in the other team’s dressing room (along with associate coach Lane Lambert and director of goaltending Mitch Korn). Ovechkin was the first to hug him. Trotz then spoke from the heart, repeatedly telling the players “thank you,” extolling their resilience and adding, “The friendships that we’ve made, the incredible things we did together, that will last a lifetime.”
Before heading back to his own team’s dressing room, he said, “It’s going to be really hard to not like you guys.”
There is no getting around the fact that the Capitals are in first place, having won six in a row.
“You can do it again, too,” Trotz told the 2018 Cup winners. Then he quickly added, “You’ll have to go through the [expletive] Island.”