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Tortorella pushing players to new level

Coach will keep challenging Lightning and telling it like it is.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2003

TAMPA -- John Tortorella knows how it seems.

The Lightning coach admitted his intensity has heated up along with the playoff race. He admitted he nitpicks at his players' games.

And while he has been known to blow a gasket when things don't go well during practice, he can be even more "animated" during video sessions when he hands out proverbial kicks in the butt much more frequently than pats on the back.

Tortorella knows how it seems, and he is here to tell you, that is just how it is.

"I like challenging people, and a lot of people don't like that," Tortorella said Tuesday. "It doesn't matter. I don't care if they like me hate me or love me. I'm going to continue it."

Tortorella will continue because he decided last month to push his players in a way many had never been pushed.

He demands accountability, challenges them to take their game to the next level, and when they get there, tells them it isn't good enough.

It is risky. Tampa Bay is the NHL's fifth-youngest team, and half the skaters never have been in a playoff race. Some personalities may not respond to a hard line, so the coach must sense when to push more firmly and when to pull back.

But with a six-season postseason drought to break, Tortorella figures he must force feed.

"You can't get through a season just patting people on the back," he said. "It doesn't happen. Yeah, I make people mad. There are players who are probably mad at me. I don't care. All I care about is the direction this team is going."

The Lightning is pointing true north at the moment. Riding a bounce from convincing victories over the Bruins and Capitals, the team holds the eighth and final playoff spot in the East and is two points from overtaking Boston for sixth.

It is four points behind first-place Washington in the Southeast with two games in hand.

Tortorella said he does not use the playoffs to motivate his players, preferring to keep them focused on the job at hand. And defenseman Brad Lukowich confirmed his coach never speaks of the postseason.

Tortorella's message Tuesday was of avoiding, after two emotional triumphs, a letdown tonight against the Thrashers at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"There is a sense of urgency in his voice," defenseman Cory Sarich said.

Tortorella's urgency spiked during a Jan. 26 plane ride from Nashville to Philadelphia a day after a 3-2 loss to the Predators.

He watched video of the game and concluded the team's "mind-set," which controls concentration and the willingness to do the little things it takes to win -- things as simple as battling for the puck and making sure pucks get out of the defensive zone -- had plateaued.

In a team meeting the next day, Tortorella told his players the gloves were coming off.

"They were told we are going to push, kick and do whatever we can as a group to get us to another level," Tortorella said.

"It was definitely time to put a lot of pressure on the players," center Tim Taylor said. "But it's not just from him. It's players putting pressure on themselves."

And Tortorella set the agenda.

That meant more teaching during practice, forcing players to repeat drills if they get them wrong, demanding they be accountable to each other and being brutally honest during video sessions. If there is a disagreement with a player, so be it.

Tortorella said that can open a dialogue as long as no one takes it personally.

"I don't want you to think it's an adversarial-type dictatorship here," Tortorella said. "This is honesty, and it's the only way I know how to do it. To me negative doesn't even come into it. It is teaching and making them understand they have to play at another level no matter how good you feel about yourself."

"When he challenges you, he gives you an opportunity to rise to the occasion," Lukowich said. "He wants you to be above average every night."

Tortorella's toughest challenge: knowing which players respond to butt-kicking and which do not.

"He knows he has to be fired up," Sarich said, "but sometimes when things aren't going your way you can't just blow up, because there are young guys, myself included, who still need direction and not just being screamed at or yelled at."

"I fight with it every day," Tortorella said. " 'Can he give you any more? Are you doing harm to this guy by doing too much or expecting too much of him?' I go with my stomach. I go with my gut."

He makes sure the players know his door is open. And he makes great use of associate coach Craig Ramsay. Where Tortorella is in-your-face and emotional, Ramsay is soft-spoken and cerebral.

"If everything is the same, then it doesn't work," Ramsay said. "But the message is the same. You have to compete. You have to play. The biggest message is if we really want to play, we must understand the game and what we're trying to do as a group."

"I have a true respect for that group in there," Tortorella said of his players. "But we're not going to stop. We're not done here."

That's just how it is.

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