WASHINGTON, D.C. - Shortly before Monday's practice, Barry Trotz walked over to the Oilers side of the rink to meet an old friend. The Capitals bench boss and Oilers Interim Coach Todd Nelson could be seen smiling and chatting outside the visiting team’s locker room at Washington’s practice facility in Arlington, VA.
The two go way back, with Trotz being Nelson’s coach in the American Hockey League with the Portland Pirates.
“Todd was one of my captains there and we had great success as a team and he was a big part of it,” Trotz said. “Always one of the leaders, always one of the ultimate team guys, always one of those guys who asked the questions and, what I like about Todd is, he was one of those guys that when things weren’t always perfect he would try to make them perfect by good team unity and stuff like that.”
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Nelson played under Trotz during the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons. The Pirates won the Calder Cup in 1994, Trotz’s first season as their coach. And now Nelson will try to best the man he has such fond memories of when the Oilers take on the Capitals on Tuesday night.
“It will be a great game tomorrow to coach against Barry,” Nelson said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Barry and we were able to share a championship together. A lot of good memories with Barry. I talked to him today and he’s been the same person ever since I met him. It will be a lot of fun tomorrow.”
Numerous times, Nelson has described Trotz as a mentor and a coach he has always looked up to. It’s no surprise to Trotz that his former player is now working his way up through the coaching ranks himself.
“Todd was always one of those guys who would ask questions,” Trotz said. “When he started, he was asking the X and Os questions and now I think he’s asking the right questions about people and managing people. I think that’s when a coach passes over to the other side and I know he’s done a really good job with the team in Oklahoma City there and he’s just gotten better and better. I see him at all the coaching things we do at the draft and he’s trying to get better. For me, that’s what coaching is about. Trying to find the new ways and the better ways to teach not only players, but teach a team. He looks for all that and I think he’s a really good people guy. Our business is about managing people and holding people accountable. If you do those things, everybody knows their roles and what’s expected and with a good communicator you have a really good shot at having some success.”
Nelson was very successful in the AHL, guiding the Oilers farm team to a record of 176-111-12-34 in his time there. He led the Barons to consecutive Western Conference Final appearances in 2012 and 2013. Now with 10 games under his belt as the interim coach, Nelson is 4-4-2 with quality wins against some of the league’s best.
“I think there’s a little more trust in their game,” Trotz said of the team’s evolution under Nelson’s watch. “There’s not a lot of uncertainty, and that sometimes comes when things are going really bad or good and they just don’t have that confidence. Some of that has to do with their own play but some of it is with how he’s directing them. It probably starts in practice with the message he’s getting out to the guys and the guys are buying in. Once the guys buy in then everybody is pulling on the same rope and it makes you a tougher team.”
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Trotz is best known for his time with the Nashville Predators. Under his guidance, Nashville enjoyed playoff berths in seven of his final 10 seasons there. He coached the Predators from 1998-2014, before joining the Capitals.
“He’s a demanding coach,” said Oilers winger Matt Hendricks, who played for Trotz in Nashville. “He expects you to come to work every day with your lunch pail and your hard hat and put in time to achieve team success.”
Understandably, Hendricks sees similarities between Nelson and Trotz, the student and mentor.
“Absolutely, in the way practices are ran, in terms of pace, (Nelson) expects you to work harder in practice to make the games a little easier in terms of making plays with the puck,” Hendricks said. “If you do it at a higher pace in practice, when you get to game speed it should be a little bit easier to make those plays happen. I see a lot of similarities there and a lot of things in terms of cohesion in terms of the group and in terms of the team sticking together and being a good unit, a one unit instead of individuals. I can see a big similarity there as well.”
“It’s more or less about developing a culture,” Nelson said of what he’s taken from Trotz. “I think that Barry is really into that and he was somewhat innovative when I played for him and that’s what he taught me, to build a family culture and that’s probably the most important thing.”
Trotz has always been there to lend an ear should Nelson have need of it.
“Over my coaching career, if I ever had something that was bugging me or I wanted some advice I would reach out to him and he’d get back to me,” Nelson said. “It’s not like we talk to each other every week but it’s one of those things where if I reach out to him then we pick things up where we left off. It’s that type of relationship.”
Now the two will faceoff against one another as coaches. A win would certainly be welcomed by Nelson, a chance for bragging rights as he says. For Trotz, it’s just good to see a friend on the other bench.
“It’ll be good. It’s always good to see a good young man back there coaching,” Trotz said. “Hopefully, in an ideal world, we would get the win in overtime.”