Anneliese Barron remembers the first thought that crossed her mind when her son, Matthew, was born with Down syndrome.
“I was always so concerned that my son was not going to have any friends because of his disability, because he was different,” she said. “That’s what really scared me the most about his future.
“I didn’t really care if he was going to ride a bike or not. I didn’t really care if he had great handwriting or a great reading level. I just really cared whether people would accept him and love him for who he is and he would have friends.”
Like many parents of children with disabilities, Capitals coach Barry Trotz and his wife, Kim, had those same concerns for their son, Nolan, who also has Down syndrome. But until Barron came to Trotz with the idea of developing a Best Buddies program in the state of Tennessee, neither had any idea what they could accomplish.
On Friday, Trotz will return to Nashville for the first time since the Predators relieved him of his duties after 15 seasons behind the bench.
There will be a video tribute to the man who introduced and sold hockey to the Music City, but to Barron and thousands of other Tennessee parents, Trotz’s true legacy will be the impact he had on children with and without disabilities.
Matthew Barron was an infant when his mother saw a Best Buddies Challenge on NBC Sports in 2007. She immediately called the national chapter for Best Buddies and was told she would need to raise $200,000 in operating costs to begin a program in Tennessee.
Originally from Montreal and a diehard Predators fan, Barron knew the Trotzes had a son with Down syndrome and she reached out to the Predators’ community relations staff in an attempt to have lunch with Trotz and pitch her idea.
“I basically stalked him and tried to get to him from all angles,” she said with a laugh.
The two met for lunch in 2009 and when Trotz agreed to speak at a Best Buddies fundraiser, the donations started rolling in.
“No one knows who I am, but everyone knows who Barry Trotz is,” Barron said. “He just dove in headfirst.”
Before long, former Predators defenseman Dan Hamhuis was matched with a buddy and defenseman Shea Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne did the same, inviting their new friends into the Predators locker room.
Trotz, who showed up with a handful of autographed jerseys and sticks at the first fundraiser for Best Buddies, became so driven to get the program off the ground that he bought jerseys from every NHL team and had them autographed for auction items.
When Brad Paisley, Aerosmith or any other band rolled into Nashville to play at Bridgestone Arena, Trotz would buy dozens of guitars and get them signed by band members, auctioning them off as fundraisers.
By January 2010, Best Buddies of Tennessee reached its goal of $200,000 and officially opened its doors with Barron as its part-time state director. In the five years since, Best Buddies has grown from less than 100 participants in two colleges to close to 4,000 participants in 80 middle schools, high schools and colleges throughout Tennessee. Barron is now joined by 14 Best Buddies staff members.
“I can see the change in people’s attitudes because of the program,” Barron said. “Even though Matthew [now 8] doesn’t have his own buddy right now, I can sense the attitude and the acceptance is already different for him.
“It makes me want to cry.”
Barron said there was nothing more gratifying than seeing Nolan Trotz benefit from the program his parents helped create. In Nolan’s first year in middle school in Brentwood, Barron said most of his friends were other children with disabilities.
But when Best Buddies was introduced to Nolan’s middle school, Kim Trotz sent Barron a photo of Nolan walking to school with his new buddy.
“I remember Kim telling me Nolan’s 13th birthday was the first time he ever had friends without disabilities at his party,” Barron said.
Trotz said moving away from Nolan’s friends and his three older siblings has been one of the most difficult things he and Kim have ever done as parents.
“Originally, it was pretty difficult,” Trotz said. “The school systems are a lot different here than they were in Brentwood. We were in a great situation in Brentwood in terms of classroom teachers, friends, all those things.
“We had a pretty good setup. He was involved in a lot of things, and his siblings would come by the house almost daily, or on the weekend they’d grab him and have him for a sleepover. Those types of things.
“When we got here it became lonely for him real quickly. We didn’t have a lot of friends here, and being special needs, it was a little bit difficult. It was heart-wrenching for Mom and Dad at first because we’d find him up in his room looking through his yearbook and circling his friends. You could tell there was a sadness in his heart.
“But he’s starting to come out of it. He’s learning to play hockey, which he never liked to play. We got him some hockey equipment. He’s Iron Man. He loves his superheroes. So we put a pair of skates on him, and we’ve got him skating, and he’s starting to be a part of a special needs hockey program.”
The Trotz’s older children also visited them in Arlington, Va., over the Christmas holidays and attended the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.
“It was really good for him,” Trotz said. “The kids have come in a few times. He’s making headway, and just like any young child, they learn to adapt, and he’s doing much better.”
Meanwhile, the Best Buddies program in Tennessee continues to thrive. Later this month, it will launch Best Buddies Jobs, a supportive employment program, and on Feb. 22, it will host its fifth annual Best Buddies Prom, an event that began in 2011 with 300 guests at a local university and has grown into a gala in which 2,000 guests will fill the floor of Bridgestone Arena.
“It’s the kind of event that if you don’t leave there being moved, there’s no hope for you,” Barron said. “It’s just pure joy.”
“It is absolutely phenomenal,” said Capitals assistant coach Lane Lambert, who worked as an assistant with Trotz in Nashville. “How many relationships have been formed and how many people have benefited through that organization’s hard work? Barry and Kim are a big part of that.
“The fact they can give those kids a moment they will never, ever forget is phenomenal. It really is. It brings tears to your eyes.”
Barron said that when Trotz was coach of the Predators he would think nothing of inviting members of the team’s staff to the Best Buddies’ $250-a-plate fund-raising dinners and 5K races and quietly handing her a check for their tickets and entry fees.
“No one knew about it,” she said. “He is the most humble, down-to-earth, thoughtful, kind person that you’ll ever meet. Most people know him as that bench boss with that huge vein that sticks out of his forehead when he gets that intense look.
“But I know him as a complete teddy bear. He does so much for so many people and he just does it so quietly. He doesn’t do it because he wants a pat on the back or a thank you or accolades. He does it because he deeply cares and that’s all he needs.”
Barron said she has no doubt that once Trotz settles into his new surroundings in Washington he will begin making the same impact he did on the communities in and around Nashville.
But first, he will be treated to a royal and emotional homecoming on Friday night at the place he called home for 15 seasons.
“I think it’s going to be emotional for him,” Barron said. “He’ll have that game face on, but I know inside it’s going to be very, very emotional.
“He’s a great coach and an outstanding man. That’s pretty much the feeling in Nashville, too. He’s going to get the biggest standing ovation ever on Friday. I’ve got my ticket and it will be the one time that I’ll cheer for the visiting team.