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Who's the man?

John Tortorella is the area's anonymous coach, but the Lightning's stunning turnaround might make him the best.

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002


BRANDON -- There are times his face scrunches up, too. Not that anyone has noticed.

No one has confused John Tortorella with a demonic doll from a horror movie, not like the guy across town. Fox TV hasn't turned its cameras away from the field to capture the twists and turns of his facial contortions.

There are times, too, his voice grows loud. Not that the world at large has heard it.

No one has referred to Tortorella as "Sweet," whether they mean it or not, like the other guy across town. ESPN hasn't pieced together a montage of his eruptions and then broadcast it all day.

In an area of celebrity coaches, Tortorella remains a relative stranger. He is not famous like Jon Gruden or furious like Lou Piniella. He is not known for his staredowns or his meltdowns, his expressions or his explosions. He is not a favorite son whose Tampa Bay teams paid a fortune to bring him home.

photo
All he's done is turn an NHL doormat into an early season force.
All we really know about Tortorella, it appears, is this:

He's a heck of a coach.

The season is too young to write sonnets about the Lightning. It is not too early to acknowledge the job Tortorella has done.

He has changed the face of a franchise, and the mind-set. He has stopped the excuses and raised the standards. He has coaxed maturity from his younger players and youth from his older ones. He has made everyone stop talking about payroll and start talking about bargains.

Most of all, Tortorella and his team have done this:

They have stopped the laughter.

It all starts with Tortorella, the straight-talking, bone-honest drill sergeant of a coach. He has his team's heart now. He speaks, and the players nod at the sound of his voice. There is truth there. There is trust.

"This is his team," center Tim Taylor said. "He's molded it. Everyone in here respects him."

The amazing thing about good coaches is this: Pretty much, they say the same things as bad coaches. They talk about team goals and accountability, about high standards and hard work, about teamwork and cohesion.

The difference has always been this: Good coaches, somehow, get the players to believe.

Do you know the biggest difference between this season's version of the Lightning, which has been amazing, and all the previous editions that were, well, appalling? No, it isn't just the record.

"It's the mind-set," Tortorella said. "It's not the goals we're scoring. It's not the system. It's that our players are accountable. That's changed."

Since he took control of the team, that has been Tortorella's chief sermon, that team is bigger than talent, that there is a debt owed to the locker room that exceeds individual accomplishment. You've heard similar phrases. So had the Lightning. That's what makes the message so hard for a lot of players around the league to buy into.

Yet, there is something sincere, something genuine about Tortorella that has convinced his players to listen.

"He's everything (to this team)," general manager Jay Feaster said. "Twenty-three guys are buying what John is selling."

For Tortorella, the big test came a year ago, when he feuded with star center Vinny Lecavalier. At the time, Tortorella had no idea whether his hard stance with his most talented player would cost him his job. After all, a lot of coaches and managers have been fired for taking on the wrong star.

But Tortorella was insistent that Lecavalier work harder on both ends of the ice, and he stuck to his guns. Eventually, Lecavalier paid attention. So did the rest of the players in the room.

"That was the turning point for John," Brian Holzinger said. "When you have a coach who is willing to challenge the superstar player, to live and die by the sword, it impresses everybody. That was a bold statement, not only for this team but as far as putting a stamp on him as a coach."

More than any other locker room, that of an NHL team is like a foxhole. Everyone pays attention. If Lecavalier had been allowed to slide, if Tortorella had looked the other way, he would have lost the room.

"I think we mismanaged things last year," Feaster said. "We put John in a situation where all he could do was fail. We set it up that if it didn't work out, it was his epitaph. John would be remembered as the guy who couldn't handle the superstar player.

"The one thing about this man is that he's going to do things the right way. At the end of his time, whenever it is, wherever it is, I guarantee you he'll be able to look in the mirror and say he did it the way he believed was right."

Feaster told Lecavalier he wasn't going to trade him. He told Tortorella he wasn't going to fire him.

The fire has cooled now, but it was in those flames the team's identity seems to have been forged. In the aftermath, the Lightning has done a lot of growing up.

Will it last? It's too early to say. But consider the constants of most good teams:

It is resilient. (The Lightning has come from behind four times to win, once to tie.)

It is territorial. (The Lightning is 4-0 at home).

It is explosive. (The Lightning led the NHL in scoring after 11 games.)

It is conditioned. (The wobble against Washington notwithstanding, the Lightning has owned the third period, especially the final five minutes in which it has outscored the opponent 9-4).

It is dependable. (Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin is a good hedge against prolonged slumps).

It is demanding. (The Lightning has reached a level where it grumbles about bad play during victories. When did that ever happen?)

"We're playing pretty good, but are we a pretty good team?" Tortorella said. "I don't know. It's a long season. There are going to be some tough times ahead. It depends on how we respond."

This is vintage Tortorella. If he has a flaw, you'd have to say the guy is short on enjoying the fuzzy little moments along the way. In coaches' speak, the next game occurs to him in a hurry. There was a report that he smiled after the Rangers' game Wednesday, but it was unconfirmed.

"Ah, I've got to do better about that," Tortorella says in one of those voices that says that he has absolutely no intention of doing better about it.

That said, there is something different about the Lightning. It seems more dangerous, more cohesive than we are used to seeing. It seems to have a plan, a direction, an identity.

More than anything, isn't that the job of a coach? To somehow convince a bunch of athletes to believe in something grander than themselves? To infuse a will, a personality, a chemistry?

That's what Tortorella has done.

As Tampa Bay coaches go, he's the best bargain in town.

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