Islanders’ turnaround largely down to Barry Trotz’s influence


New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz stands behind his team's bench. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

I’ve been covering the sport of hockey at one level or another for nearly 35 years. As a result, I feel like I have been going to hockey school for that length of time.

Today I went to watch the New York Islanders practise in Calgary in preparation for their game against the Flames. I made my way to find out, in part, why this team that lost its star player in John Tavares has been one of the great surprises of the 2018-19 season. What I left the rink with today made an incredible impact and it had nothing really do with hockey, but everything to do with people.

I remember as a teenager watching Islanders head coach Barry Trotz as a hard-nosed junior defenceman with the Regina Pats. Since then, I have had a number of opportunities to listen to Trotz in scrums, and have always enjoyed each and every single one, but today was different.

First off, in the hallway after practice was Trotz’s special needs son and other family members. His coaching record at the NHL level speaks for itself. This past June, he helped guide the Washington Capitals to their first-ever Stanley Cup.

I’ve always admired his work, and don’t for a second suggest I know him overly well. I have on many occasions asked a number of people about him. The message is always the same: Terrific person, highly respected.

When asked about the Islanders’ fortunes this season, he pointed to the culture set by new GM Lou Lamoriello. He immediately praised the Islanders players for truly leading the way and buying in to what has been asked of them.

Trotz then referred to some of their free-agent signings like Leo Komarov and Valterri Filpulla who might not have been the sexiest pick-ups but have come from winning programs and are good professionals, which has allowed them to form an identity.

He then said, “there was a cultural change. How we practise, why we practise. We gave them the ‘this is what we are doing and why.’”

Simple, right?

Getting it across and receiving the buy in is not always so simple. If it was, everyone would have the same impact. The truth is one person can tell you one thing, and someone else can say exactly the same thing, yet how it resonates can be so different.

I’ll never forget watching Trotz after the Capitals lost Game 2 of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He was incredibly calm despite the fact his group was in real trouble and the noise of another early Capitals post-season exit was deafening.

He stood in front of the large group of reporters, and I am paraphrasing, but he stated they would be just fine. I remember shutting off the TV, going into work and talking to my co-workers. If his players feel like I did after that, they just might be fine.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Capitals won Game 3 in Columbus in double overtime. One shot away from being down 3-0, and likely a first-round casualty, to winning it all.

Here is the part of today that stuck: Trotz talked about his incredible summer. His daughter got married, his day with the Stanley Cup in his hometown of Dauphin, buying a house and trying to get settled in his new surroundings. He also mentioned how tough it was to take his son away from an incredible school in Washington where the special needs program was second to none.

Then Trotz was asked if anything had changed for him as a coach after winning the Stanley Cup. I’ve listened to the answer more than 10 times and it’s an answer I plan to keep forever.

Here is a summary. Trotz immediately referred to a chat he had with Alexander Ovechkin, and how Ovechkin was taking heat for the fact that they had never done this, never done that.

Trotz said he told Ovechkin that he had inspired so many young players to try to be the next Ovi, that he was the face of the franchise and had done so much good for the community and the NHL. Winning a cup shouldn’t define him.

Going through the process, Trotz admitted it donned on him it didn’t define him either. He then added: “I don’t define myself by trophies and things, everyone else wants to but to me it’s absolute horse bleep.”

He then pointed to his son and family, and stated this is what defines him and the relationships he has with people in his life. That’s what really matters.

A short time later, I left the rink with one major reason why the New York Islanders had turned their fortunes around.

Barry Trotz.

And instead of another day at hockey school, it was a day at perspective and life school. It’s one I won’t forget.


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