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The Tao of Trotz and the art of getting life advice from a hockey coach

Four years of wisdom from a one-of-a-kind Islanders coach.

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New York Islanders Training Camp Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s a little bit like life. It doesn’t always go the way you want. So you can crawl up in a corner in a ball and whine about it or blame someone else. But you just gotta get it done.

-Barry Trotz

I never met Barry Trotz. The closest I ever got was sitting a few rows behind the Islanders bench for a 1-0 loss to the Penguins earlier this season at UBS Arena. This was during the time that half the Islanders’ roster was made up of guys from Bridgeport who no one suspected would be opening a brand new, billion dollar arena before the season started. That was just one of the many strange occurrences this season that has led us to today.

But over his four years as Islanders coach - which came to an abrupt end this morning, as GM Lou Lamoriello announced the coach’s firing to a shocked hockey world - I never felt closer to a single person in this organization. Not a player, not another coach, not a broadcaster. Sure, there we favorites of mine, most of whom we’ve said goodbye to over the years. No one affected me more than Trotz did, and in a way I didn’t expect.

I remember when the Nashville Predators were born and named him head coach in 1998. I thought it was because he bore a striking resemblance to Hee Haw star Roy Clark. Fifteen years passed and he was still there, taking the Preds from a who’s who of who’s that? to an annual playoff team. I remember when he was let go by Nashville and signed on with Washington, the team whose minor league squad he had coached years prior. I respected him through his journey to get Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals their first Stanley Cup, even when they beat the Islanders in the 2015 playoffs.

In those previous years, I didn’t know who Barry Trotz was. What kind of coach he was. How he spoke to people after games. The way he saw the game and evaluated his teams and players.

I didn’t know that he was a philosopher, too. Maybe he didn’t know, either.

“I said it early in the year, if you want to go somewhere quick, you go alone. If you want to go somewhere far, you go as a group. They decided to go as a group.”

Early in Trotz’s first season with the Islanders, I started noticing a pattern to his pre- and post-game media availabilities. They weren’t focused on “passengers” and “warriors” as other Islanders coaches had done. There was a little of that and a whole lot of bigger picture considerations, mainly about hockey but also about life in general. Some were hockey ideas that could be applied to life outside the rink, or just observations from a lifetime spent in the game winning, losing and everything in between.

I started pulling the lines that stuck out to me and putting them into a spreadsheet. I jokingly named it the “Tao of Trotz” after the Chinese philosophic idea that I had barely remembered from a college course I mostly slept through. Or maybe it was The Tao of Pooh?” Or maybe it was a bit of Stan Lee alliteration. It doesn’t matter now.

What started as a fun exercise eventually morphed into something much bigger. Trotz kept spouting these bon mots in videos and interviews that I felt had true sage advice in them. He wasn’t talking x’s and o’s. He was talking about how to be one’s best self, how to push past adversity, how to take a situation and turn it to your advantage, how to be a leader, a teacher, a parent, and a person.

“Because experience, good, bad or indifferent, prepares you for success and if you can avoid some of those landmines or some of those mistakes of the way you were thinking or how you respond, they build character. They build trust in what you believe in. They build confidence and they build a reference file where you can go back to a good place.”

I thought I would stop collecting Trotz philosophy quotes after Year One. He was an absolute goldmine that year, no doubt due to the fact that he was constantly being interviewed about just what the hell he had done to the Islanders to make them actually good.

No one expected that result. No one except maybe Barry Trotz.

“You can talk about an identity but you have to do it in the room, you have to do it on the ice. I think the guys are starting to believe in each other and hold each other accountable and that’s what you want. You want them to take the ownership.”

That was from October 18, 2018. The Islanders were still in their early stages, figuring out where the coach wanted them to be defensively. There were growing pains and frustration from both ends. But things started turning around by the end of November. By December, they resembled a true, cohesive NHL team.

After a loss to Winnipeg at home on December 4th, Trotz said something I’ll never forget. No other Islanders coach of my lifetime, with the exception of the late Al Arbour, would ever say anything even almost like this at any time.

“We don’t get paid to hang in. They get paid to win.”

It was simple and direct and also completely devastating. What a concept. Playing to win. It was something the Islanders hadn’t done consistently for a long, long time. And here was a guy laying it out as plainly as could be. The goal is to win hockey games. But it was more than just that.

“When you say ‘culture change,’ it’s just a way of doing things. We talk about accountability in some areas and the way we present ourselves, the way we act, the way we respond to adversity, all those things. That’s part of changing the culture. Changing the culture might be instead of when things get a little bit rough in terms of maybe not going a certain way, if you don’t have a great culture you fracture and you all go individually in your own direction, when actually you should come together and go in the same direction. That’s a mindset. That’s something day in and day out you force accountability on the guy next to you and he trusts you’re going to get your job done.”

Trotz’s quotes continued through the playoffs, which included the Islanders first postseason sweep since the 1983 Stanley Cup final. Even when they were swept themselves in Round Two, Trotz had his eyes on the bigger picture.

“That’s the cruel reality, sometimes you play really well and don’t get the result. I don’t think I can say we didn’t give everything we had, we just didn’t get the result. It’s about staying with the process. We’ve done that all year.”

He was rightfully awarded the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year that summer. Only Arbour had ever been recognized as such in the franchise’s history. It felt like just the start of something special.

“We have an understanding of what we’re trying to build & how we’re going to get it done. You talk about a group that cares about each other, cares about what the crest of the Islanders means. It’s a very passionate community. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before.”

It was.

“This group just focuses, stays in the moment, and that’s why I think this team — they come to work, they come to compete every night, and they give you their best effort. “That’s the Islander way, I think it’s a reflection of the way we play, it’s a reflection on the people we have, and it’s a reflection on the community we live in.”

As soon as he reported for training camp the next season, Trotz was at it again. At least once a week, he would say something that would strike me as advice to take along in the future. Something that transcended hockey and spoke to how to conduct oneself in society.

“You can be a good hockey player, maybe, maybe not, but you can always be a good human. That’s a choice.”

So I kept collecting quotes. All throughout that season, which was paused due to the pandemic and restarted in the summer, I hung on every Trotz interview. Pre-game, post-game, TV, radio, internet. All of it was appointment viewing, even if I missed the actual game. The Islanders went into the pause playing disjointed, terrible hockey. They entered the Toronto bubble as a team on a mission. They made it all way to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, a place they had not seen since I was a junior in high school.

I had a strong suspicion that the Tao of Trotz had helped guide them there.

“Coaching’s not about equality. It’s about inequality. As players come in, they’re all different. They are treated the same way with the same respect but they have different personalities, different strengths and all that. And you have to find a way that they can contribute their skillset. And be successful for the team.”

They lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. The next season, which started in January and was shortened to just 56 games, saw some more fallow times. But they made the playoffs again. And made it back to the Eastern Conference finals, this time losing 1-0 in Game 7, just about the slimmest margin you could think of. The loss was a tough one to swallow and still is.

But the journey was worth it.

It’s not necessarily the trophy but the journey to the trophy. Those are the important things. It’s all about the journey and those moments. And at the end, if you get something to put on the shelf, that’s great. But you’ll remember all the moments and you’ll remember the journey.

Fans of other teams won’t understand this. I didn’t know Trotz before he took over the Islanders but I always appreciated his approach to the game.

To folks outside of the Islanders’ sphere, Trotz was an old, bald, neckless dinosaur trying to kill their favorite sport. I’ve heard, read or seen people bitching about Trotz and the Islanders nonstop for four seasons. That his brand of hockey should be outlawed, that he was behind the times, that he was the opposite of the hockey that they wanted to see.

Now that he’s a free agent, they all want their teams to hire Trotz to save their favorite franchises. They want what they ranted and railed against. What they cursed at during games, when their favorite players went silent and the Islanders dismantled another team on the way to two more points. They want that playoff style hockey their teams don’t even play in the playoffs.

Like Trotz said this season, “You guys are like McDonald’s. You guys want everything right now.”

I can’t say I’m surprised by the hockey world’s hypocrisy. I can say now that most of these teams don’t deserve to have Trotz, either the hockey coach or the sage.

“We understand how we have to play and what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. Just the game management and the understanding and the buy-in of what’s necessary to get the job done has been the biggest change. We used the word culture, but to me it’s the way, it’s the professionalism, and we have a lot of people that exude that.”

Stay in the moment. Look forward. We don’t look back. We only look forward. We don’t look at what happened yesterday. We analyze it after it happens but for the most part, we let it go and we look forward

Over the four years, the life quotes started getting fewer and further between. As Trotz himself said, “We are in the winning business not the points business.” This season saw too little of both. In the end, the Islanders missed the playoffs for the first time under Barry Trotz. And now, Trotz is no longer their coach.

But I still have the Tao of Trotz. In total, 256 quotes over four years, the most successful era of Islanders hockey since the dynasty. I’m sure I missed some or forgot some but that number gives you an indication of the absolute fountain of wisdom this man produced over the course of just a few seasons.

I had thought about putting them into a book or maybe a website or an email newsletter that would send a different Trotzian tidbit right to your inbox every week. I didn’t do the work. As always, life gets in the way. I should have taken the coach’s advice and, “Create that moment, whatever that moment may be.”

I’ve used Trotz quotes in my daily life, at my job, and even with my daughter, telling her that, “Every morning, I get up and I make my bed, is the first thing I do. What it does is it gets you ready for the day, that you can say, ‘I’ve accomplished something already.’ You’re already productive right away.” That’s what Barry Trotz said and he’s the coach I trust the most. She actually does make her bed (most of the time).

Whenever I do, I think of that line and the many, many others from Barry Trotz that impacted me in big or small ways. The Islanders have never had a coach like him and probably never will again. So I’m glad I still have these memories and missives that I can keep forever.

“And when you look back, the 20/20 hindsight when all the dust settles, you define those defining moments. Because you don’t know when they come. They come at the strangest times, and there’s unlikely heroes and there are just strange things that happen that are out of everybody’s control. Whatever’s thrown at ya, ya just gotta deal with it. And not be frustrated with it or be overwhelmed or be, ‘why me?’ You just deal with it and move on and, actually, you try to do it with a smile on your face, like a ‘You can’t get me’ type of thing. No matter what you throw at me, it’s how you deal with it. That’s the beauty for me, how the human spirit sorta reacts to all those different elements that come at you.”

The full Tao of Trotz is available to read here.