A seed was planted in Tom Fitzgerald’s head a few weeks before he actually was asked to move into coaching.
The roots, however, were established when he was the Nashville Predators’ first captain, a position he held for almost four full seasons. That’s when his leadership abilities revealed themselves, not just to others but to Fitzgerald himself.
“For me, I look at the situation then and dealing with young kids whether it was Scott Hartnell or David Legwand and picking them up after a bad game or trying to make them feel better or pulling things together,” Fitzgerald said. “…That’s what, as a coach, you do. You try to pull everybody together and get everybody on the same page, whether it be a home party or in the locker room or a Christmas party.”
Fitzgerald has not been in coaching for long. He only became an assistant for the Pittsburgh Penguins a little more than three months ago.
His move, though, was part of a mid-season shake up, which helped the Penguins surge into the playoffs and all the way to a second straight appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.
Pittsburgh went 18-3-4 in the regular season after Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as head coach and Fitzgerald was added to the staff. The Penguins then dispatched — in order — Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina in the postseason.
“Fitzy does everything with a passion, which is why he’ll be a good coach,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “… You can see since the change that the Penguins are playing the game with joy. When we played them (in early January) there was no joy in their game.”
Pittsburgh’s general manager Ray Shero was part of the Predators’ management team during Fitzgerald’s tenure as captain. As such, he saw first-hand the communication skills and leadership attributes of a former first-round draft pick who enjoyed a 17-year playing career, which included 78 playoffs games.
It was Shero, therefore, who first approached Fitzgerald — at the time the Penguins’ director of player development — with the idea of moving behind the bench. That was in mid-January.
The day after Valentine’s Day, Bylsma replaced Therrien and Fitzgerald followed his heart, which meant leaving his wife and four children in Boston, where he lived and worked.
“That was part of what was to be expected,” Fitzgerald said. “The family knew full well and I knew full well that it was going to be tough. And it is tough. I don’t like being away from my family. I don’t like missing a ball game or a lacrosse game or even going to a school field day. I miss it.
“But I have a job to do here.”
That job includes breaking down the opponent’s power play and coordinating the Penguins’ penalty kill efforts. He also does extensive review of game film and prepares video packages for individual and team review by the players. During the game he takes note of particular moments — good or bad — to be discussed later with the other coaches or players.
Without the demands of family, he estimates he spends at least 10-12 hours a day focused on the job and often has work on his mind while he eats or tries to relax in a hotel.
“Your stomach turns; it’s in knots,” he said. “…You just cross your fingers that guys will make (the right) adjustment on the go at times. … You have no control over what other people do, but I can say from that first game and that first month, I’m a lot better at (not) having anxiety attacks while watching.
“I’m very vocal on the bench and that’s one thing that (Bylsma) asked me and wanted me to do.”
‘C’ is for Coach, Captain
Nashville general manager David Poile was the one who initially raised the idea of Fitzgerald being the team’s first captain during contract negotiations in 1998.
An unrestricted free agent that year, Fitzgerald already had spent time with three different organizations, one of which was an expansion team (Florida). He also had significant playoff experience, including a run to the Stanley Cup finals with the Panthers in 1996.
On July 6, 1998, therefore, he not only was introduced as the team’s first significant free agent signing, but also its captain.
“He really relished that role,” Poile said. “All the leadership qualities were brought to the top when we did that.”
Despite being in the formative years of the franchise, Nashville lost five games in a row once with Fitzgerald as captain and never more than four any other time.
He was traded to Chicago on March 13, 2002, and the team won just three of its final 16 that season. The following year the Predators were winless (0-10-3-2) over their final 15 games.
“Being captain, it was such a young team,” Fitzgerald said. “(Trotz) leaned on me and that was great. I felt like I was an extension of the coaching staff, it really was the first time I thought about coaching. It was probably because my career was winding down.
“… Then I didn’t give it a second thought because I kept playing a few more years.”
Contending for the Cup
He never made it back to the Stanley Cup finals as a player. In the nine seasons since he went with the Panthers, he returned to the playoffs six times with three different teams (Florida, Chicago and Toronto) but never was part of a deep postseason run.
It took just a matter of weeks for him to get there as a coach.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “It’s tough to compare. As a player, I had to put my time in [at] the gym, worked on my strength and worked on faceoffs and you could tell by your performance whether that was making a difference.”
Obviously there are no guarantees he’ll be back in the finals, even if he coaches for an extended period of time.
Then again, he can’t guarantee he’ll coach again beyond the current series because he has not had a lot of time to consider the future during the last few months.
“We’re playing in the Stanley Cup finals — a lot’s gone on,” Fitzgerald said. “Situations, circumstances have changed. It’s just something that has been a whirlwind to say the least.
“When this is done, I’m going to sit down with my family and sit down with Ray and then go over everything and kind of absorb what happened in the past few months and then go from there.”