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The gloves are off

Although out of character, Lightning coach John Tortorella rips into the Flyers' Ken Hitchcock and Bob Clarke, inciting an exchange of words.

By TOM JONES
Published May 13, 2004

photo
Tortorella
Hitchcock

BRANDON - The Lightning and Flyers did not play, but the Eastern Conference final turned passionate, heated and ugly Wednesday when Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella tore into the Philadelphia brass.

After pleasantly answering several questions, Tortorella announced he had a "statement." It appeared to be nothing more than playful gamesmanship at the start. It soon turned surly and ended with a scathing criticism of Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock and general manager Bob Clarke.

By the time Tortorella finished his two-minute rant, he had referred to the actions of Hitchcock as "gutless" and "chicken (expletive)," had induced Clarke into calling Tortorella a "pathetic little man" and had laid out an intriguing backdrop for tonight's Game 3 in Philadelphia.

Tortorella's criticism of an opponent was out of character, but, in his mind, justified because he said Hitchcock yapped at a Lightning player, something of a taboo in coaching circles, during Game 2.

Tortorella normally preaches discipline to his team. He clings to the theory of keeping one's composure and not worrying about what the opponent does or says.

But he tossed away those beliefs Wednesday.

"The last time I looked, he's wearing a suit back there, the same type of suit that I'm wearing," Tortorella said in Brandon before the team flew to Philadelphia. "He's not in the battle. ... You have two quality teams here. He should shut his yap."

Tortorella later said, "When it comes to a coach (and) an opposing player, it's disrespectful and it's wrong. It's gutless. That's got to stop. Park your ego and shove it in your pocket. It's about the two teams."

When Tortorella started, it wasn't clear what he was talking about, but he admitted it was about Hitchcock saying something to a Lightning player, whom Tortorella refused to identify. It's believed to be defenseman Brad Lukowich, who played for Hitchcock in Dallas.

When asked if Hitchcock had said anything to him, Lukowich said, "I don't know. I couldn't hear what he was saying."

Before the series started, Hitchcock complimented and criticized Lukowich for his play and said his development with the Stars had stalled.

When told of the gist of Tortorella's comments during a news conference in Philadelphia, Hitchcock said, "John needs to mind his own business." He then said, "Next," meaning he was ready for another question.

Hitchcock later added to his comments, but first more from Tortorella.

He started his "statement" criticizing Clarke for talking too much to the NHL and Hitchcock for talking too much to the media.

"We knew going into this series Bobby Clarke, their general manager, is going to be working as hard as he can behind the scenes as far as whining about this, that and the other as far as what's going on in the series," Tortorella said. "We know Hitch is going to be talking about anything that is on his mind and will talk to anybody that will listen to him as far as some of the dialogue that goes on within a series. We accept that. It's something that can't bother us and it won't bother us, it won't hurt us in our preparation."

This is when Tortorella started to steam: "When a coach starts bringing that dialogue on the ice, behind the bench, more or less bringing that dialogue within the opposing team's players, it's wrong."

Then he boiled over.

"It's chicken (expletive)," Tortorella said. "And it's not for the series. I don't care about all the garbage that goes on, and Philly does it all the time. They like to listen (to) hear themselves talk about this, that, the other thing. That's not going to affect us. But when it comes to a coach to a player, that's just so disrespectful. These are two quality teams with great athletes on both clubs. It's not about the coaches."

Clarke seemed mystified by Tortorella's comments, but he didn't take long to fire back. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer: "I don't know what he's talking about. It sounds like a pathetic little man looking to get some publicity for himself. I don't care. The game is played on the ice. Maybe the real John Tortorella is coming out. I never met the guy. I'm sitting in the press box."

When a reporter read Tortorella's comments in their entirety, Hitchcock took a shot at Tortorella, who normally doesn't comment about the opponent.

"Tell him to mind his own business," Hitchcock said. "I always yap? I just tell you that is my comment, I'm sticking to it.

"It was my thought John was not commenting on anything about the opposition. That is what he said to the press. Now is that okay when you win the first game and lose the second game? Now he is commenting about Bobby Clarke and Ken Hitchcock? Just like I said before, he needs to mind his own business."

It does not appear Tortorella's outburst had anything to do with the roughhousing at the end of Game 2. After that game and again Tuesday, Tortorella called it nothing more than "playoff hockey."

Hitchcock criticized the St. Pete Times Forum for using the scoreboard to repeatedly show Donald Brashear hitting the Lightning's Tim Taylor. Hitchcock said it was replayed to inflame the fans and was disrespectful to the officials. But, like Tortorella, Hitchcock did not appear to have any issues with what happened on the ice at the end of Game 2.

Perhaps Tortorella's outburst was meant to deflect attention away from the Lightning, which is coming off a 6-2 loss. Maybe he was trying to inspire some passion after his team's sluggish performance. Maybe he really was upset with Hitchcock. After all, Tortorella said he never has said anything to an opposing player during a game.

"I never will," Tortorella said. "I'm not in the battle. I am not in the battle. (Hitchcock) is not in the battle. Shut your yap!"

When Tortorella met with the media in Philadelphia, he refused further comment about his tirade. He already had said plenty.

- Staff writer Damian Cristodero contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 13, 2004, 02:20:18]

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