With his tendency to reveal minimal copy to the New York media, the understated Rangers coach John Tortorella is a bit of a mysterious figure. So Blueshirt Bulletin decided to set sail to Tampa, Florida – where “Torts” coached for seven seasons – on a quest to learn more about the personality and methods of the man who controls the fortunes of the Blueshirt Battleship.
Several colleagues and associates of Tortorella in Tampa share their lasting memories and anecdotes of the Stanley Cup winning coach…
Erik Erlendsson, Tampa Tribune: “Getting off the bus in Philly before game three. They lost 6-2 in game two. That was the game where Tortorella came out with the famous, ‘Shut your yap’ to Ken Hitchcock, this whole Hitchcock against Tortorella thing began to take on a life of it’s own. It was amazing to watch. Because when the bus goes off in Philly, you’re down below and there’s fans up on the upper level. Well, it was just jan-packed, five people deep as the team bus rolls in.
“Normally the Philly fans are going to jeer the players getting off the bus. One by one the players come off the bus – you don’t hear a peep out of the fans. Not a peep.. Soon as Tortorella walks off the bus, ‘SHUT YOUR YAP!!! SHUT YOUR YAP!!! [smiles]. It was one of the mindgames that Torts likes to play, where he deflects attention from his team and put it on himself. And it worked to perfection. And you could see it. For the Philly fans to leave the players alone when they came off the bus – to direct all their attention is exactly what he wanted. Perfectly timed, perfectly well executed plan. So that was obviously a key moment during their Cup run in ‘04. That was some of the stuff Torts liked to do.”
Scott Audette, Tampa Bay Lightning team photographer: “I love the guy. When the Lightning first named him as head coach, the Lightning had a charity golf tournament. The first time he saw an alligator he begged me to come over and take a picture of the alligator on the golf course. He was so excited about seeing an alligator for the first time. We took the picture, made a huge print for his office. And after that, he and I were tight. He always stood up for me after that, took care of me.
“Torts held everybody accountable, nobody was above the law. Some people weren’t happy but the team worked hard. Vincent Lecavalier played his best under Torts. And the charitable stuff he did was amazing. To see the real Torts is to see him when he’s with the kids. Then you see him let his guard down. That’s his soft spot – the kids.
“Another memory about Torts is he allowed me to be the first team photographer let into the locker room for the Stanley Cup Finals. Torts came to us right before the Cup round started, or the day before the first game. Torts told one of the equipment guys who is now in Pittsburgh, that he thought it was gonna be something special, whether we win or lose. He knew he wanted the guys to have some sort of special keepsake from the Cup round. So I spent – between shooting the games, when things would happen or guys were hurt or whatever the case – I’d have to run down to the locker room or the training room when guys are getting stitched up. From shooting Ruslan Fedotenko seconds after he came off the ice with a concussion – he didn’t know where he was. To game seven when Marty St-Louis is getting his face stiched up and Andre Roy is standing over him and pouring a beer into his mouth while he’s celebrating.
“Torts had the insight to doing it. And that turned out great. It ended up benefitting a lot of people. We did a museum show out of it for charity, a book – the players had their own private book with a quarter-of-an-inch aluminum cover, hand-made in Italy. Torts knew that it was going to be important to them later in life when hockey wasn’t there any more.”
Bobby Taylor, Lightning TV analyst: “Torts, to me, as volatile and passionate as he was and how sometimes he would say things out of the passion of the moment, never let his heart overrule his head. To me, that was the one quality that I was so impressed with. You know how a lot of coaches say, Okay guys, you’re gonna have a day off tomorrow. And if the team played poorly – You’re not getting the day off tomorrow! We’re gonna skate you like crazy! Torts never did that. He had a plan that he went through. It was through the whole year. He stuck with that plan. And there’s times that I know that he wanted to give these guys a lot [smiles]. And he never did that.
“And to me, I think as passionate as a guy that he is and as outspoken as a person that he is, that was the one thing that people don’t understand. He never lets this thing (points to his heart) overrule this thing (points to his head). And he, to me, he, that was incredible for me. And you always knew the truth with Torts. He never, he never talked out of the side of his mouth to you. He told you what he thought and what he felt. And in the long run, I think that’s what everybody wants. They want people to tell them the truth. They may not like it at the start, but after a while, they’ll say, You know what, he’s right. And that was the biggest thing for me about John Tortorella. He was a what you see is what you get. And that is such a quality that we don’t see too often.”
Damian Cristodero, St. Pete Times: “We were in New York, they were playing the Rangers. It was really funny. John Tortorella had a thing about the training room. We were not allowed anywhere near the training room. Couldn’t look in, couldn’t do anything. Against the Rangers Nik Khabibulin had an unbelievable game. But Khabibulin sweats a lot, so after the game he’s taking intravenous. So he’s in the training room. He’s the story of the game. He played an incredible game. So we’re waiting to talk to Nik. Finally, the team goes to the bus. I’m standing in the locker room with one of the PR guys. The PR guy goes, Eh, poke your head in there. Tortorella’s on the bus, it doesn’t matter. So I go around to the training room, I poke my head and look for Nik and, sure enough, Nik’s there. And like a GHOST, Tortorella pops up out of nowhere and he’s like, WHAT THE F ARE YOU DOING IN THE TRAINER’S ROOM!! And he’s just screaming at me for five minutes. And it’s just incredible. Just like we didn’t even know he’s around. It was great. And we laugh about it now, to this day. It was just really funny.”
Tom Gilbert, TampaBayLightning.com: “He got mad at a few of the writers a few times. I remember he said, ‘You saw the F’n game, write what you want. I got a flight I gotta catch right now. Good night [smiles]. Torts is a great human being. I know him on and off the ice. What he did off the ice for this community is fantastic. He had the John Tortorella Fishing Tournament, he would take underpriviliged kids fishing. He loved kids, he loved the community. I talked with him when he came back here around Thanksgiving, he said, ‘Tommy, my heart’s still here in Tampa. I still love the Tampa Bay Lightning.”
Mike Corcoran, Lightning fan: “It was after a game at the Nassau Coliseum in January 2007. It was a typical cold northeast winter day, raining outside. And Tortorella came out there after the game and he stood there – out in the rain, standing in the rain, no umbrella – for probably 30-45 minutes signing autographs for everybody. And answering any question, all the kids, he gave an answer to everybody. It was strange because I heard all the stories about him being rude to people. But he was the complete, polar opposite of how he’s portrayed sometimes. That surprised me, I didn’t expect that. That’s one of the things I always remember about him – how he stood there.”
Mark Didtler, Associated Press: “What I remember about Torts is not so much his success on the ice but how much he did in the community. He was a very civic-minded person though he didn’t blow his own horn about it. As we all know, he can be testy with some of his players or the media. As fiery and tough as he seems, he did have a real soft side. The other thing was, obviously he had his problems with Lecavalier but he turned Lecavalier into a player that one year to help them win the Stanley Cup. He was a great motivator. And sometimes he was a pain to deal with. But at least you knew where you stood with him. If he was upset with you, he let you know, as a reporter or a player. He brought a certain attitude here. The team believed they could win – and that’s so important. He had all the pieces together that one year. And it was a magical year where everything fell into place for them in the playoffs. And they took advantage of it.”
“Maybe that’s the problem with the Rangers, his style is not the perfect style for the players that they have. It’s tough to be a hard-nosed coach anymore in this league. Or all sports. It’s changed over time. When he first came here, no one thought the team would ever be a contender. Because of all the down years, from like ‘96-97 losing like 50 games every year. He worked with with Jay Feaster the general manager. They brought in some good players and he was able to utilize those players. But if you would have asked anybody in press row, when he first took over for Steve Ludzik, that within a few years they’d be a Stanley Cup champ – no way. They’d be lying. Everybody was prepared for another guy that might be here two, three years, and then another 50-loss season to bring in the next candidate. It was stunning that they were able to do it in such a short amount of time.”
Eric Erlendsson, Tampa Tribune: “The team hadn’t made the playoffs since ‘96. It’s 2002, the franchise was really struggling, drawing flies for games. They were winning 16-17 games a year. And one of the things he really wanted to do was change the culture around here. It was early in the season, October, getting ready to go on a long road trip. And they lose to Florida 5-0. This was before we knew John Tortorella as the intense head coach that he is. And me, being my first year on the beat, didn’t bring my recorder down to the post-game press conference. And he goes off on his team: IT HAS TO CHANGE. THE CULTURE HAS TO CHANGE. He’s pounding the table. All kinds of words that can’t be published in a family newspaper. But it was one of those moments where you got to see how much he cared about winning and how much he wanted to change what had been really, for six years, a bottom-based team. For him to come out as strongly as he did and really call out his team – that was a pretty good turning point where players, fans and pretty much the media started to understand exactly how high-tempo of a coach he was.”
Topics: Alligator, Audette, Charity Golf Tournament, Coach Erik, Coach John, Head Coach, John Tortorella, Ken Hitchcock, Lasting Memories, Lightning Team, Mindgames, Mysterious Figure, Seven Seasons, Stanley Cup, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Tribune, Team Bus, Team Photographer, Torts, Yap