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Capitals' Barry Trotz still the same coach in a new city

by Dan Rosen / Washington Capitals

Not long after defenseman Matt Niskanen signed with the Washington Capitals this past summer, he paid a visit to Kettler Capitals Iceplex to get his bearings and have his first in-person player-coach conversation with Barry Trotz.

The differing backgrounds struck Niskanen almost immediately.

"I was in town looking for a place to live and I talked to him, and he was like, 'There is a lot, a lot of media here,'" Niskanen said, laughing. "He was like, 'I mean, A LOT!'"

Niskanen said he didn't laugh out loud because he didn't want to embarrass Trotz.

"But inside I was laughing," he said while laughing outwardly. "I'm talking to him thinking there were times in Pittsburgh when Sid [Crosby] was making a comeback and I couldn't even get to my stall, and I was on the other side of the room."

That's because Crosby, and before him Mario Lemieux, made Pittsburgh into a major NHL market where big events are the norm, nationally televised games are a regular occurrence, and walking into a room filled with reporters is expected.

Trotz arrived in Washington after 17 years in Nashville, where the media contingent is small enough that Trotz felt he could be a friend as much of a source, and nationally televised games are rare.

"Obviously it's a little bit different in Washington," Trotz said.

Trotz got his first taste of how different when he was introduced to the Washington media as the new coach at a well-attended press conference on May 27. He had never talked in front of a gathering of media as big as he sat in front of that day.

Soon after NBC released its national broadcast schedule, featuring the Capitals on NBC or NBCSN 12 times, tied for the most with the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Philadelphia Flyers. The Predators are scheduled for one national appearance on NBCSN.

Trotz's exposure has only grown with the national attention that comes with being the home team in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, which features the Capitals against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday at Nationals Park (1 p.m. ET, NBC).

In addition, Trotz has become a character in a reality TV series. The all-access series "EPIX Presents Road to the NHL Winter Classic" has already featured him in a multitude of ways, including at the National Zoo with his wife and son 13-year-old son Nolan.

If any of the attention is getting to Trotz, bothering him in any way, he's not letting on.

"I'm used to sort of lying in the weeds and being quieter, but it's OK," Trotz said. "I'm more relaxed with it now than I would have been maybe 10 years ago. I'm not going to change. It's too late for that."

He said 10 years ago he might have flown off the handle at having a camera follow him around for what seems like 24/7. Now he said he realizes that losing his cool wouldn't make sense, especially when he knows the exposure is good for him, the Capitals, and the NHL at large.

"This is the people business, and that's about selling the game," Trotz said. "I was in Nashville, so I get this part. I was in a non-traditional market and you've gotta sell the game. We were all about selling the game in Nashville. Now you're selling it in a different way."

Trotz then recalled his first press conference in Nashville, which he said featured about four cameras and two cowboy friends of his who came wearing dusty clothes with dirt covering their faces.

"The difference was pretty clear at my first press conference [in Washington]," Trotz said.

The change has been good for him, though. Trotz said the attention he is getting and microscope the Capitals are under because of the EPIX show has refreshed him and helped both the team focus.

"The good thing is there is nowhere to hide," he said. "You can't just push something under the mat. There is too much media around, too many questions."

In Nashville he said he could joke around more because there were less people around and less attention, particularly on a national level.

So far in Washington he finds himself being more careful around the media, particularly with the added element of social media and the fact that one of his players is Alex Ovechkin.

"The competition in the bigger market, I have to watch what I say more because everybody is in that business to get hits or sell papers," Trotz said.

But watching what he says hasn't stopped Trotz from being himself. Joel Ward, who played for Trotz in Nashville and now in Washington, said his coach hasn't changed because of the exposure.

"He's the same guy," Ward said. "He's a people person. He cares about his players not as just hockey players, but as individuals. That goes a long way. Guys see that."

Niskanen, who didn't know Trotz until this season, said he has been exactly as advertised.

"The things he said he wants done, that's what he believes and he sticks to that with everyone," Niskanen said. "It's just black and white; this is what's expected. He's for sure not a phony."

Trotz can deftly handle the added exposure at work because worrying about it seems trivial compared to what he's had going on at home these past few months. Trotz said Nolan, who has special needs, has struggled to adapt and has shown signs of being homesick.

Nolan was born and raised in Nashville until the family moved to Northern Virginia this past summer, leaving behind his three older siblings, Tiana, Tyson, and Shalan.

"He grew up knowing one thing," Trotz said. "Our block was across the street from the school, all the kids knew him. He'd go to the school dance and all the girls would grab him and he'd get to dance with them. He'd go to sports in the Best Buddies program with swimming, horseback riding. The teachers knew him; they grew up with him."

Trotz said the ratio of special needs kids to teachers is small in Tennessee compared to Virginia, so much so that he and his wife don't think Nolan is getting enough attention in school. They are planning to pull him out and to hire someone to work with him one-on-one.

"The first month you could tell that from the change he was sad inside," Trotz said. "He's not verbal. He uses sign language. He'd go up in his room and he was looking at his yearbook and he'd circle all his friends. You could tell he had a sad face."

Lately, Trotz said Nolan has gotten better. He has even started skating, something he never showed an interest in while living in Nashville.

"The first time we got him on the ice we went the ironman rout by putting all the equipment on because we didn't want him to fall down and get hurt," Trotz said. "Well the other day he asked to go skating. That's a good thing. They have a lot of great programs in Virginia for special needs hockey, and he'll be a part of that going forward."

Nolan has his mom, dad and siblings with him this week as the Trotz family is together because of the Winter Classic. The plan was to watch the first two episodes of the EPIX show on Christmas, when EPIX was expected to have a crew at their home in Clarendon, Va.

Nolan wants to skate at Nationals Park during the family skate on Wednesday. Trotz will join him. The cameras won't be far behind.

That's the life Trotz knew he was accepting when he took the job to coach the Capitals this season. The television series will end for the Capitals after the Winter Classic, but the attention on Trotz will intensify with 10 more games on national television and a playoff race heating up.

He won't try to hide and he won't try to change.

"You know what, we've got a great life, I've got a great job, and I've taken the approach that we're not running away from the cameras," Trotz said. "Do I crave it? No. But what you see is what you get. I'm comfortable in my own skin."

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