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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Method to his madness
By TOM JONES
Published October 3, 2005
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
John Tortorella's forthright manner hasn't endeared him to every player (or official), but they're quick to point out his impressive results.
John Tortorella is not happy.
Moments into the very first practice on the very first day of training camp on the very first day the team has gathered since winning the Stanley Cup, Tortorella blows his whistle.
Players freeze. Pucks stop moving. Total silence. Here it comes.
A grimace. A shake of the head. An expletive.
"Do it again!" he barks. He looks to make eye contact with someone, but all eyes are staring at the ground, each player looking like a kid who just put a dent in dad's car.
The whistle shrills. Practice resumes. And thus begins Tortorella's fourth full season as Lightning coach.
What, you thought a Stanley Cup was going to change him?
He's still miserable, anal and, most of all, brutally honest. Even his associate coach, Craig Ramsay, one of his closest allies in the world, calls him a "pain in the a--."
For three years, as the Lightning climbed Mount Stanley Cup, Tortorella's abrasive style caused players to ask for trades, engage in screaming matches and, in some cases, well up with tears. But that method also took players to levels they didn't know they could reach.
But now that the Lightning has reached the top, can Tortorella's caustic coaching continue to work or will players, sick of all the verbal abuse, eventually tune him out?
"The act that gets old is the guy is harping, harping, harping all the time," Lightning veteran Tim Taylor said. "A guy who pushes and pushes and never lets up. The guy who is the (tough guy) all the time loses his players. That's not Torts. When you realize he is making you better, which he has done, that act never gets old."
Lightning players insist Tortorella's reputation is far worse than reality. He doesn't yell as much as you think. He cares more than you think.
Even privately, with the promise their thoughts won't be repeated, Lightning players pledge their allegiance to Tortorella.
"Does he yell? Yes, of course," Lightning forward Fredrik Modin said. "But when he does, you know why he is yelling. Listen, he's not always easy to play for. But the thing is, he's honest. If you mess up, he'll yell. But if you do something well, he'll let you know that, too.
"You always know exactly where you stand with him."
Sometimes that's the problem. If Tortorella thinks a player is playing like a dog, he'll say, "You're playing like a dog." He doesn't ease into it, doesn't soften the blow with a few kind words first. The thought pops into his head and within seconds it's coming out of his mouth, as if he was born without the gene for tact.
But to Tortorella, being honest, even brutally so, is the ultimate sign of respect and the foundation of his coaching style.
"A player might not always like what I say to them, but what they have to realize is that I want them to be the best they can be," Tortorella said. "Some players might call it criticism. I call it teaching. I'm trying to make them better. When I get on a player, deep down, he knows. He just doesn't like hearing it.
"But I respect them. If I wasn't trying to make them better, I wouldn't be respecting them."
Case in point: Camp Torture-ella, three weeks of training jampacked with agonizing conditioning drills.
The payoff was Game 6 of the 2004 Cup final that saved the season. Between the first and second overtimes, Tortorella burst into the locker room and reminded them of how hard they worked during training camp.
"Suddenly, it was like a light bulb went off in their heads," general manager Jay Feaster said. "It was like, "Oh, this is why he worked us so hard.' They got it - that training camp prepared them for this moment. That they were fresh and ready to win and that Calgary wasn't."
Marty St. Louis scored and forced a Game7, which the Lightning won.
But now, shouldn't Tortorella ease off a bit? Bite his tongue a little more? Give more pats on the back and fewer kicks in the rear? Maybe cut a lap or two from skating drills?
"Absolutely not," said former Lightning coach Terry Crisp, whose similar style helped Calgary win a Cup in 1989. "He has to be John Tortorella. You can't change what you are or the players will know you're a phony. They can be mad at you, they can dislike you, they can hate you. But you don't want them to think you're insincere or you'll lose them for good."
There's zero chance that will happen with the Lightning.
"I'm an emotional guy," Tortorella said. "None of this is an act. None of it is premeditated. I don't plan to yell or scream or this and that. That's not me."
Maybe who he is will be a good thing for the Lightning.
Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin, who played for coach Al Arbour on an Islanders team that won four straight Cups in the early 1980s, said Arbour became even more of a jerk (Potvin used a harsher word) after the Islanders won their first Cup.
"He never let up," Potvin said. "We would tie a game against some bad team and it was devastating to us because Al was so hard on us. He never let complacency set in. That's why we won four Cups."
While nothing so far this preseason suggests Tortorella is turning from Captain Bligh to Captain Kangaroo, there are a few subtle changes. He always has apologized to his players when he has made a mistake, but now he appears to be trying to be more tolerant of their mistakes.
"I must show them the respect of what they've accomplished and how they've matured," Tortorella said. "I treat them differently now that they're 25 or 26 years old than I did when they were 22 or 23. I have to. They've earned the respect."
Some days, he can't help himself. He still grates, still rubs his players like sandpaper. It will happen again and often this season. He will still scream in the locker room, still send messages through the media, still give cold stares and heated words.
"But that's fine," Taylor said. "We know that he really does care. He's in here fighting just like we are. He wants the best for us and we respect him for that. He'll last here as long as he wants because he is so respected.
"I don't think he will ever wear out his welcome."