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Man of The Island: Trotz’s connection with Islanders fans was unique and immediate

Barry Trotz didn’t invent “The Island,” but he made us believe in it.

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Islanders Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s been a few days since the Islanders let go of Barry Trotz, and I’m still processing my thoughts on it. I’ll get over it eventually. A big part of the problem is that there’s now a hole behind the bench where an accomplished, intelligent coach used to stand. Once it gets filled, I’ll have different feelings. If I correctly understand the Lou Lamoriello workflow paradigm of “If you have time, use it,” a new coach will be named about a week before training camp.

Maybe when that new coach is picked, we’ll be surprised again. It’s easy to remember that when Trotz was hired, morale around the fanbase was mostly low. Sure, he was just coming off a Stanley Cup and was already in the top 10 of NHL coaching victories. But what would he be able to do with that roster? Was he a magician, too?

Turns out, he kinda was. At least a little bit.

I’ve already written about the many, many words of wisdom Trotz imparted to us in his four years with the Islanders. Any one of them could be used as a guide for life or hockey. But when I think about Trotz’s tenure - or, rather, the abrupt and unexpected end to it - I don’t just remember a bunch of games and good quotes.

Landing on “The Island”

Trotz had a true connection with Islanders fans that few before him have ever achieved, let alone as quickly as he did. He understood the mindset of the people in the stands from the moment he took over. And he used that knowledge to get the players, the people and the franchise moving in the same direction.

That connection seemed to be based on the concept of “The Island” as both a place and a mentality. As Trotz set about teaching the players how to play the structured defensive style he would come to brand as “Islanders Hockey,” he also taught them and us to embrace the idea of “The Island” as something to rally behind and defend. When he famously told the Capitals, in their locker room at Barclays Center to receive his Stanley Cup ring, that to win another championship they would have to “go through the fucking Island,” the first brick was set.

That was at the end of November, 2018. Barely two months into the job, Trotz had already planted his flag. Prior to his arrival, the Islanders were a team that at times had no home or two homes; a team that had a history of losing its best players; a team that had not had any real sustained success since Simon & Simon was still on the air. Now, they would now embody the spirit of “The Island,” a metaphysical idea that basically meant that if you worked, played or rooted for the other team, you were gonna have a bad time. With that came another rare feeling among Islanders fans: pride.

The players and the fans came together to create a stifling, aggressive atmosphere that made Islanders home games a difficult task for any visitors. Whether it was John Tavares making his first return appearance at Nassau Coliseum as a member of the Maple Leafs, a playoff game against the always-hated Penguins, or a random game in the regular season, “The Island” was a thing to be reckoned with. Without Trotz getting everyone to buy into it, that hostility would not have been nearly as concentrated or unified.

How ingrained was that defensive mindset? What other crowd have you ever heard cheer dump-ins from the red line with a minute to go in a playoff game? Probably not too many.

“The Island” wasn’t just an in-game concept, either. Trotz talked about being out and about around his new home and interacting with fans who appreciated being part of the cult: “You can see the passion on The Island. You go to Home Depot and you’re getting high-fives. It’s not a bad place to play.” That was from a win over Anaheim in January of 2019. That was also a game in which the crowd at Nassau Coliseum serenaded him with chants of his name. He said afterward, “I appreciate it. We do everything together, we’re playing together. We’re all Islanders.”

One of the things I find most interesting about Trotz establishing such a distinct identity for his new team so quickly is that he previously had little to no connection to the Islanders whatsoever. Sure, he coached against them a bunch of times with the Predators and Capitals, but so have a lot of people. He’s from Manitoba, and aside from having a friendship with Butch Goring, he mostly grew up watching the dynasty Islanders on TV like everyone else. Throughout his time playing and coaching in the minors, he may have crossed paths with various Islanders farm clubs. But that’s about it.

Maybe he did some research on Islanders fans after he took the job (Did he read Lighthouse Hockey? If he did, I hope we were nice...). Maybe he got the idea after the Islanders-Capitals playoff series in 2015. Maybe he just took a wild guess.

Or maybe he knew a little about the history of New York sports.

D-Fense!

New York has a lot of pro teams. Basically two of each, and even more if you throw New Jersey and Buffalo into the mix. And you’re free to go any way you want. It’s part of what makes the rivalries so heated. It’s not unusual to be a fan of one team and have a parent or sibling or a friend or a spouse or a neighbor who roots for the other. The combinations are endless. But one thing that unites every New York sports fandom is a healthy appreciation for good old fashioned defense.

Lawrence Taylor is still arguably the greatest New York Giant of all time because he was an absolute tornado on the field. Ask Joe Theismann. It’s still hard to believe that the always smiling Michael Strahan I see everywhere on TV is the same guy I watched chase down and tackle Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb and Tom Brady a million times. The 90’s Knicks were a terrifying hit squad that came oh so close to grinding their way to a title. If you were under the basket with Charles Oakley, you were most likely getting an elbow to the throat or ribs.

The Jets might be one of the most maligned and impotent pro teams on the planet, but they had two brutalist defensive eras - the great New York Sack Exchange of the early 80’s and the Rex Ryan-coached teams of the last decade. That team pulled off the miracle of all miracles by going to back-to-back AFC Championship games with Mark “Butt Fumble” Sanchez at quarterback. You can do that when you barely give up 10 points a game. Even the Mets - The New York Mets! - once had “The Greatest Infield Ever,” who were basically four vacuum cleaners darting and diving between the pitcher’s mound and the outfield.

Not all of those teams won championships but that doesn’t matter. New York loved them anyway. It was a point of pride that you weren’t going to have an easy time scoring on them. That pride transferred from the players to the fans.

I choose to believe that Barry Trotz appreciated this. That he knew that a solid defensive game plan with a full buy-in, while also helping his team win, would be accepted and adopted by the fans. Combined with labels like “Islanders Hockey” and “The Island,” Trotz gave the previously erratic franchise a solid foundation and an instant identity.

Trotz said after a win in 2019 that he told his players, “It was good to have the Islanders back.” We all felt the same way.

It’s clear that Barry Trotz understood Islanders fans on a very deep and profound level. He knew what we wanted to hear and what we wanted to see and he gave it to us right from the get-go. Whether it was the Eastern Conference Finals or Home Depot, he heard us and accepted us for everything we are.

Maybe the next coach surprises us in the same way Trotz did. But it’s unlikely they’ll connect with us in the same way.