As the black SUV finally swings out of the parking lot at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow, N.Y., the two young men in Islanders apparel clamber up from the curb and start waving. “Is this for me?” Barry Trotz wonders aloud, a question that is quickly answered when the head coach pulls over and rolls down the driver’s side window.
“We waited all day for you,” one of the fans says, rushing over.
“You’re absolutely our hero,” the other says, holding up his phone.
Trotz leans close and smiles. I duck out of the way. The fans swap spots so the first can snag a picture too. “You’re the man!” he says, offering a fist pump in gratitude.
Selfies and a mild savior complex. Such is life, evidently, behind the wheel of this NHL season’s unlikeliest success story. (Apologies, Jordan Binnington.) Dismissed as cellar-dwellers when superstar John Tavares left in free agency last June, the Islanders have instead risen to the top of the Metro Division at 36–19–7 (79 points) through Feb. 26, on pace for the franchise’s best record since its dynastic rampage through the early ‘80s. Don’t blame the diehards for getting excited.
“They’re craving it,” Trotz says, steering away. “The Island is passionate.”
It’s a cloudless afternoon in mid-February, an XM comedy station on low volume. Sporting a three-piece game-day suit for tonight’s matchup against the Oilers at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the 57-year-old Trotz is headed home after the morning skate. Upon accepting the Isles job last June, fresh off winning the Stanley Cup with Washington, Trotz realized that he didn’t even know where his new team’s practice facility and offices were located, let alone much about the surrounding area.
Eight months later, the house is still decorated with unopened moving boxes and the family eats dinner at a crafts table. Trotz only just got around to stocking the minibar with glasses and spirits this week. His Capitals championship ring is still packed away somewhere, maybe in a hockey bag.
When the Capitals presented Trotz with that 14-karat, 252-diamond bling donut in November, prior to facing (and losing to) their ex-coach for the first time, Trotz delivered a heartfelt speech in the visiting locker room of Barclays Center, at one point expressing confidence in Washington’s ability to repeat. And then, adopting a feistier tone, he added, “You’re going to have to go through the f—— Island, okay?”
Even then, though, who would’ve dared guess that Trotz might be proven prophetic so soon? And yet here are the Islanders, deep and defensively detailed, riding a league-high .925 team save percentage from goalies Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, looking to become the first club in a century to finish first in goals allowed (2.32 per game through Tuesday) after ranking dead last during the previous season (3.53).
“I like how the players have gotten off the floor,” Trotz says. “They’ve been counted out from day one. Everybody thought they’d be vying for the first pick.”
Turning down a quiet suburban street, Trotz rounds into a driveway with two hockey nets stacked in front of the garage. Until the sale finally closed on this place, Trotz spent his first month here at the Marriott near the practice facility, walking to work at 6 a.m. and returning 16 hours later. This followed a chaotic offseason that included trips to his daughter’s destination wedding (in Hawaii), his family’s lake house (Kelowna, British Columbia), his Stanley Cup day (Dauphin, Manitoba) and a post-wedding reception for his daughter (Nashville), not to mention the decision to resign from Washington and accept a reported five-year, $20 million offer from the Islanders.
As training camp neared, Trotz worried that he was already getting burned out, an entirely new sensation over two decades of NHL head coaching. The necessary jolt came toward the end of preseason. It was around then that Trotz recalls realizing about the Islanders, “We’re going to be okay.”
“So far it’s played out that way,” he says now. “Maybe better than we even thought.”
Chests heaving, the players were sucking wind as they trudged into the locker room. One day earlier, the Islanders had wheezed through GM Lou Lamoriello’s famous (at least by hockey standards) max-effort treadmill test. And now they had just endured the first on-ice session of the new regime, an exhausting slate of skating, battling and puck-tracking drills that several still swear was the hardest practice they had ever experienced.
Granted, this was pretty much the point. “I just wanted to see what you guys were all about,” Trotz told the team then. Or, as winger Matt Martin explains in hindsight, “The purpose was to see if he could break us mentally. He tried. It was tough.”
Since then, the Islanders seem to have only gotten stronger. Addressing the Islanders’ defensive deficiencies was “an easy fix,” Trotz says. “Couldn’t be any worse.” He runs the same 1–1–3 neutral zone structure that the team employed prior to his arrival, but the Isles now flock to smother opposing puckhandlers and stifle forechecks with smooth, unpanicked breakouts—a far departure from the freewheeling “shinny” style that Trotz remembers seeing from the visiting bench.
“Our meetings are long and detailed, but we never go into a game surprised,” Martin says. “There’s no real gray areas in our system. Everything seems to be a plan.
And yet, aside from players making sloppy passes in practice or yelling at the refs too much in games, Trotz rarely defaults from his typically laid-back demeanor. Serious video footage is frequently spliced together with funny clips of players falling down. When the team took its annual father’s trip to New Jersey and Boston earlier this month, Trotz hired mentalist David Magee to perform during a group dinner at the hotel. And last week he arranged for a curling outing in Calgary.
“A lot of praise should be given to him for what he’s done,” says winger Anders Lee, the team’s leading goal-scorer (21) and Tavares’s replacement as captain.
Of course, credit deserves to be shared. Assistant coach Lane Lambert has helped the penalty kill improve from 31st to 16th league-wide as of Feb. 26, while director of goaltending Mitch Korn has whispered his usual Jedi magic in the crease; both are longtime sidekicks who followed Trotz from Washington. Trotz is also quick to sing the praises of first-year NHL assistant John Gruden, who handles Isles defensemen such as time-on-ice leader Ryan Pulock and up-and-comer Devon Toews.
Clearly, though, the team takes after the Tao of Trotz. “If your coach is yelling and screaming, then you start yelling and screaming, and then you’re focusing on the wrong things,” Martin says. “When we get like that, Barry reels us back in, tells us to shut it. The overall demeanor as a group has come a long way. We just go about our business. That’s a reflection of him. We’ve taken on his mold as a group and really grown.”
No wonder Trotz cites the team’s relentless, hard-charging trio of Martin, Casey Cizikas (career-high 17 goals) and Cal Clutterbuck as “our identity line.” (Even though his first words to Clutterbuck upon meeting him at the practice facility were, “I used to hate you.”)
“Those guys are close to my heart,” says Trotz, “because I didn’t have a lot of skill.”
True, Trotz never made it past the major-junior level before the bench beckoned. But it sure wasn’t for lack of effort. After holding part-time summer jobs at a bakery and a clothing store as a teenager, Trotz earned his first full-time paycheck with a rail gang in Manitoba, swinging a 40-pound tamping bar and pounding spikes before sunrise. After his shifts ended, Trotz would catch a nap in the bunkhouse, wake up around 8 p.m., and prepare for the hockey season by lifting weights and sprinting along the tracks until sunset.
He has come a long way since then. Now Trotz just rides the train to work.
Slinging his suit jacket onto the overhead luggage rack, Trotz slides into an open row aboard the 2:20 p.m. Long Island Rail Road, westbound service to Atlantic Terminal, smack on schedule as usual. “Predictability, man,” Trotz says, taking the window seat. “It’s all I want.”
It’s why he prefers the whole public transit experience to calling a chauffeured car service, which many players and coaches do whenever the Islanders play in Brooklyn. Occasionally he even makes the mile-and-a-half walk from home to the Garden City station, where he forks over $8.75 at the ticket machine, though today we just took an Uber. Sometimes he naps, other times he watches film with assistant Scott Gomez, who rides along for weekday games. But the commute always lasts 43 minutes. Every time.
The last time I interviewed Trotz, we were standing outside a luxury box at Nationals Park, where the Capitals were busy kicking off what became a well-documented bender on their first day back with the Stanley Cup. (At one point during that afternoon’s Nats–Giants game, two players emerged from the suite with their faces covered in mashed potato, spud shrapnel from a food fight.) Nine days later, unable to come to terms on a contract extension, Trotz resigned from the position he had held since May 2014. Three days after that, he was a certified—not to mention, at $20 million over five years, handsomely paid—member of the f—— Island.
As the train chugs along, hurtling past golf courses and ball fields, Trotz is asked what he remembers most from the two-week span between clinching against Vegas and getting hired by the Islanders. He ticks off a list of events—the flight home to D.C., the final team picture, the packed parade down Constitution Avenue—and nothing about the separation that followed. “All the good stuff,” he says. “No animosity there.”
Pulling out his iPhone, Trotz scrolls through pictures and reminisces some more. There he is along a tiny airstrip in Dauphin, raising the Stanley Cup aloft at the start of his day with the trophy on Aug. 22. Here is his son Tyson, an English teacher in Russia, riding horseback in the parade alongside a cavalry of traditionally dressed Cossacks. And there is the Ukrainian dance group performing during a corporate charity dinner that raised $169,000; at $1,000 a head, each guest paid for a meal, entertainment and the chance sip booze from the Cup while Trotz poured. His shoulders were still aching when he woke the next morning and drove to nearby Winnipeg for the flight out.
The ongoing summer chaos left Trotz little time to prepare. He phoned every player for a brief chat once the hiring was announced but only watched five Islanders games from last season all summer—all against the Capitals. And the first time that his coaching staff met as a full group came less than a week before training camp. “It’s been a whirlwind,” he says.
And yet the Islanders have remained remarkably steady, last suffering consecutive regulation losses in early December. “With every game that goes by, the belief gets bigger and bigger,” Martin says. “He said we were going to have a good team, and we believed we’d have a good team.”
Looking back, Trotz believes the roster truly “took hold” when the Isles bookended a four-game trip with convincing victories over Colorado and Dallas before Christmas, and then blanked Tavares and the Leafs in Toronto after the holiday. “That solidified it,” says Trotz, who also passed Isles legend Al Arbour for fourth in career wins on New Year’s Eve. “I think the guys have a sense of pride knowing that they can go into any place and win. We have two homes. We’re not picky.”
Indeed, tonight’s eventual 5–2 triumph over Edmonton will mark the team’s last game in Brooklyn before its schedule shifts to Nassau Coliseum for the rest of the regular season. The team’s old, recently renovated home rink will also host playoff games in the first round, though the conference semifinals would shift back to Barclays Center if the Islanders advanced that far. With two months to go, Trotz isn’t getting too cocky. “To me, there’s Tampa and there’s Washington,” he says, referring to the current runaway Presidents’ Trophy winners and the defending champions, respectively. “We have to play more to our ceiling every night than they do.”
At 3:03, the train crawls into the station. Grabbing his suit jacket and backpack—weighed down with a laptop, notebooks and “about eight pounds of pens”—Trotz steps off and rides the escalator behind two fans wearing Islanders jerseys. This couple never turns around and notices him, though it seems like pretty much everyone else in this part of Brooklyn does, at least judging by the chorus of shouts that accompanies his short walk to the rink.
“Good luck tonight, coach!”
“We love you!”