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The Right Direction

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]

Since taking over from Steve Ludzik in Jaunary 2001, Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella has gotten his players to buy into a team-first concept that had been lacking in previous Lightning locker rooms.

Through sheer force of will, the strong-minded coach guides his team to its highest potential.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003


All at once, John Tortorella did nothing and everything.

It was late in the first period of a March 8 game against the Avalanche at the St. Pete Times Forum, and Colorado had Tampa Bay's number.

But if a 3-0 deficit called for smoke to come from the Lightning coach's ears, the players did not see it. Nor was there the shaking of the head or rolling of the eyes that so often greeted players who returned to the bench after making a bonehead play.

Yapping was replaced by encouragement. A kick in the butt by a pat on the back.

"He had all the reason in the world to get disgusted and blow up," defenseman Cory Sarich said recently. "You didn't see it. He did a great job of encouraging us to go out there and keep truckin'."

"He was very, very positive on the bench," associate coach Craig Ramsay said. "Outgoingly positive, more so than he might ever have been."

When it was over, the Lightning had earned a scintillating 4-3 victory against one of the league's premiere teams. The game ignited Tampa Bay's franchise-best, 13-game unbeaten streak and was the real jumping off point for the team's playoff run.

"The way things worked out," Sarich said, "it was a pivotal moment for us."

And a defining moment for the coach, who, aside from a four-game stint as the Rangers interim coach, is running his first NHL team and, in some ways, is learning on the fly.

Since taking over from Steve Ludzik in January 2001, Tortorella, through force of will (and the support of a dedicated staff and veterans such as Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor) has gotten his players to buy into the kind of team-first concept that had been non-existent in the Lightning locker room.

Tortorella, 44, has a deep knowledge of the game. And spending three hours after each contest breaking down video has made him technically better.

While preparing for the Lightning's first playoff game since 1996, tonight against the Capitals, he slept at least one night in his Times Forum office. It is where many of the ideas for the transformation of the Lightning were born.

The team has matured. But so has the coach, and that may be the most significant change of all.

"I make a ton of mistakes with my emotions, a ton," Tortorella said. "But I think as we've gone through as a team here, I understand the players a little better, and I think they understand me a little better. And that's growing up together."

Tortorella is the first to tell you he is a tinderbox during the season. Win or lose, it is not unusual for him to keep reporters waiting while he calms down in his office.

His players are not spared his petulance. He is known to be brutally honest and forcefully loud during video sessions. He is not afraid of confrontations and even encourages them, to a point, because he says they open lines of communication.

Tortorella's emotions have betrayed him.

As coach of AHL Rochester, he slugged a fan who heckled him as he and the Americans came off the ice between periods of a playoff game.

As a Coyotes assistant, he reprimanded defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky for using his cell phone during a bus ride to the team plane after a disappointing loss. Tortorella later found out Tverdovsky could only call his parents in Russia at a certain time.

But along with the emotional volatility is an emotional strength. Tortorella needed it last season when he put his job on the line by insisting star Vinny Lecavalier play a complete game and be accountable to a team concept instead of the stat sheet.

What many do not know is Tortorella went through a similar situation in Rochester, where he took on the Americans' aging icon, Jody Gage, and forced him to retire for what he believed was the greater good of the team.

It has been in this season, though, that Tortorella's emotional volatility and strength have so firmly fused with coaching maturity.

"In my mind, it's demonstrating visible control on the bench," Ramsay said when asked about the change. "As your team gets better, that becomes more and more important.

"As crunch time hits, as the games get more important and you're the guy standing there in control of yourself and your team, your team can grow and feed off that. Bad things are going to happen in a hockey game. If you are a guy who is the rock, the players can say, 'It's okay,' and they can respond to it. He knew it, he worked at it and he has demonstrated it."

Finger on the pulse

As Lightning players have learned what to expect from Tortorella, the coach has learned what they expect from him. It is not enough to teach the league's fourth-youngest team, to provide Xs and Os. He must nurture it through the process as well.

In that context it is dangerous constantly wearing your emotions on your sleeve and easy to cross the line between encouragement and discouragement.

"It's been a learning experience for him too," Andreychuk said. "I think he realizes the damage that can be done. You can talk to a guy about things during a game, and it can hurt us. He's learned, just like we have learned that no matter what happens in a game, you have to keep going through it. Don't let it get to you."

That includes things of which he and the team have no control such as officiating.

Taylor said Tortorella no longer hangs on to his anger about bad penalty calls. He has even entered the locker room between periods or before games to remind players not to be distracted by the officials.

Not that he has become a goody two shoes behind the bench.

"He still loses it a little bit on the linesmen and referees," Taylor said.

And players still earn his wrath.

"If it's time, John certainly has no problem bringing the fire," Ramsay said. "The players know that. They know it's there. But now when he demonstrates it, it's more of a conscious decision. Now it's a tool, and it's a good tool to have."

"He still has his moments when he's frustrated on the bench," Sarich said. "But when it comes out he's keeping it in control, keeping it in a way that players won't take the wrong direction out of it. Guys aren't looking to the bench anymore and feeling like, 'God, I screwed up.' "

Winning helped. And though the players and coach appear to have found a comfort level, those levels are always in transition.

Bruins forward Mike Knuble said Tortorella didn't like him right away when Knuble played for the Rangers and Tortorella was an assistant.

"He had a fiery personality and was very demanding, and by the end we had a good relationship," Knuble said. "It probably just takes a while to find out who can play under his system. But I'm not surprised at his success. He gets a lot out of his players."

Tortorella was stunned Knuble thought their relationship strained, and said, "I loved the guy."

"I just hope they understand everything I do is to push them in the right direction," he added. "I make mistakes. Sometimes I shouldn't be as emotional as I am. Sometimes I shouldn't be as calm and that's a constant read as we go through and that affects players differently.

"That's the key in coaching, how you motivate the athlete. I may lean on them sometimes but know they're still trying and you hope they feel the same way about you. It's a mutual thought that we're all trying to accomplish the same goal, to be the best you can be as a team. Then you win, and that's the only thing I have on my agenda."

Tortorella believed he could not complete that agenda in Rochester with Gage on the roster.

The right wing was the face of the Americans when Tortorella took over for the 1995-96 season, and was one of three AHL players to have 500 goals and 1,000 points. But at 36, and with a bad knee, he had slowed significantly, and Tortorella determined he no longer fit the system.

That set up a confrontation that, in many ways, was similar to the one between Tortorella and Lecavalier. Feelings between player and coach were strained. The locker room was divided, fans were divided; many were furious and hung banners against the coach.

Tortorella's reputation and maybe even his future were on the line.

"It was a very difficult thing to live through," Rochester owner Steve Donner said. "John could have taken the easy road and the easy way out, but he didn't feel that was the way to go."

"You can't run a hockey team on making everybody happy," Tortorella said. "Every decision that was made was the best for the hockey team, and at particular times as you go through these steps, people may not understand it. But if you believe in your plan, you have to stay with it.

"I know people were upset with me then, and they're still upset with me now, but I can't gauge that. I gauge what goes on in that locker room, and we're going to continue to do it that way."

As with Andreychuk and Taylor in Tampa, Tortorella had the support of veterans such as Dixon Ward and captain Dane Jackson. Gage was eventually made assistant general manager.

Gage said when that happened "most of the issues (within the team) went away." Again, winning helped. The Americans took the Calder Cup.

Gage was named general manager the next season, and he and Tortorella developed what Gage called "a very good working relationship" and an understanding of what transpired.

"It's not about him," Gage said. "John Tortorella is about his players and what he wants to accomplish. He will go to war for them. In the end, it's all about the team and winning."

Even Lecavalier, who, whether he admits it or not, is flourishing playing the game Tortorella demanded, gives his coach credit for pushing the right buttons.

"He's got some great qualities," Lecavalier said. "He works hard and his preparation is great and he really gets the team ready to play. The most important thing is everyone is going in the same direction, everyone has been helping each other, from the coaching staff and the players, and that's the way it should be."

Give it to 'em straight

When Blue Cross Arena, where the Americans play, was known as the War Memorial, players and coaches walked through a roped-off area in the concourse to get to the locker rooms.

As the Americans left the ice trailing 4-1 after two periods of Game 7 of the 1996-97 Empire Division final, a fan yelled at Tortorella, who retaliated with an open-handed push to the face.

Tortorella, who said at the time he was sticking up for his team, is still terribly embarrassed by the incident. But the way it was handled demonstrates a consistency of character.

According to Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle, Tortorella brought the fan, college student Matt Ungleich, into his office after the game and apologized. He also worked with Donner and Ungleich's lawyer to formulate a settlement that included paying for Ungleich's broken glasses and conducting a floor hockey clinic at a Boys & Girls Club.

Face to face. Get it out into the open. Jim Schoenfeld, who coached the Coyotes when Tortorella was an assistant, said it is one of Tortorella's strengths.

"John isn't one to mince words," said Schoenfeld, a Rangers assistant. "He looks you in the eye and tells you how he feels. It may be an eye-opener for some guys. It may be an adjustment. But after a while that's one of the things you admire about the guy."

"For a coach to say to a player, 'This is the lineup. You're not in tonight. You have to be ready to play the next game,' that doesn't happen very often," Andreychuk said. "Usually somebody is sent to do that job or nothing is said at all. Guys know where they stand with him."

And not just the players.

"John's approach is the same with everyone in the organization," general manager Jay Feaster said. "When players get upset and get their feelings hurt and get frustrated by him, I've always said to the players and the people I answer to that I get the same treatment myself."

As Feaster spoke, Tortorella walked the hallway outside Tampa Bay's locker room at Phoenix's America West Arena and muttered expletives because reporters were in an area which he believed should have been off limits.

Feaster was asked, only half seriously, if he saw any indications Tortorella was enjoying the Lightning's run which, on that night, with a 4-1 victory over the Coyotes, pushed Tampa Bay within a point of the postseason.

"Yeah," Feaster said with a chuckle, "there's no question that I believe under it all, if you scraped away the dirt, there's somebody there with great pride and great satisfaction in what his staff and this team has been able to accomplish."

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