With his dapper suits and snow-white goatee, Barry Trotz cuts quite the distinguished coaching figure behind the Washington Capitals bench these days.
He looks every bit the veteran bench boss who has racked up 723 career victories (557 which came in Nashville), the sixth-most in NHL history.
It's hard to believe nearly 20 years have passed since Trotz, who was then the unlikely 38-year-old head coach of the Nashville Predators, stood behind the home team's bench and stilled his nerves before the franchise opener.
The five years he'd spent as an American Hockey League head coach, the one year he'd spent helping shape the Predators team, were all coming to a head in front of a roaring Nashville crowd that day.
"It was a moment I'll never forget - getting started as a young coach, finally stepping on a bench in your first NHL regular-season game," Trotz said. "It was a pretty defining moment for me as a coach. It was no different than a player playing his first NHL game - a lot of emotions. That was a pretty good day for me."
It didn't take long, of course, for the thrill of coaching his first NHL game to be replaced by the challenge of trying to guide an expansion team on a limited budget.
Trotz recalls that reality setting in about three weeks into the first season, when the Predators took on a Colorado team that rolled out the likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Deadmarsh, Sandis Ozolinsh, Adam Foote and Patrick Roy to start the contest.
"I countered with our mighty line of (Andrew Brunette, Greg Johnson and Sergei Krivokrasov), with a defensive pairing of Joel Bouchard and Bob Boughner," Trotz said with a chuckle. "That was the moment you go, `Hey, we might not win a lot of games this year.'"
The thing about Trotz's expansion-era teams, however, was that they rarely embarrassed themselves, despite the fact they lacked the talent and the payroll of more established clubs.
Even in the five years before the Preds reached the playoffs, they never won less than 27 games. Compare that to the first three years of Nashville's expansion counterpart in the south, the Atlanta Thrashers, who averaged less than 19 wins in their first three seasons.
One reason the Predators were in almost every game they played was that Trotz and his coaching staff always had the team ready.
"In his preparation, I think (Trotz) was second to none," said Steve Sullivan, who played six seasons under Trotz. "There's not one game we entered that we were not prepared for. No one was going to surprise us with anything. We knew exactly what we were going to get from the opponent."
Sullivan and a number of other former Predators also praised Trotz's abilities to get the most out of his players, in part because of the relationships he crafted with them.
"I think that's why we played so well for him - players really enjoyed playing for him," said former Preds forward Scott Walker, who played seven years under Trotz. "You knew he cared about you every day. Every day, he came to the rink and talked to you not just about hockey, but about your family and what was going on in life. He was as much a teammate as any coach I played for."
In his 15 seasons at the helm of the Predators, Trotz pioneered the club to all kinds of firsts.
He guided the Preds to their first winning record, their first playoff berth, their first 100-point season, their first playoff series win and more. Trotz set the NHL record for longest-tenured coach of an expansion team at 1,196 games, compiling a record of 557 wins, 479 losses, 60 ties and 100 overtime losses.
One of Trotz's most impressive coaching performances occurred during the 2007-08 season, when he steered the Preds to the playoffs - despite the fact they were without Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Tomas Vokoun and Sullivan from the previous year's roster. He was also a Jack Adams Award finalist in 2010 and 2011.
Trotz had plenty of favorite memories over the years, like the first-ever home playoff win over Detroit in 2004.
"I remember talking to the head of production at the time for NBC Sports (the day after the Preds' victory)," Trotz said. "He told me the crowd was so wild that they couldn't keep the cameras steady - for the first time ever - because the building was shaking."
But Trotz is probably even more proud that he helped establish a franchise in a non-traditional market, and that he helped the Nashville Predators develop an identity.
"To me, I think we sort of built the Nashville brand," Trotz said. "When I say that, it's not the uniform or whatever, but we built the Nashville culture of hockey into what it is today. We were always competitive. We battled. We found ways to get it done."