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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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Tortorellas don't want credit for their charity work
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007
TAMPA -- The game was Green versus Yellow and the Green team had a ringer.
The 49-year-old guy with the graying, scruffy beard seemed out of place in a floor hockey game at the University of Tampa for kids 8 to 12. But there was Lightning coach John Tortorella, jabbing his stick at the goalie and using his substantial height and weight advantages to playfully push her from the net.
When the ball deflected off the goalie's mask, Tortorella whacked the rebound past her, prompting a stick-raising, laughing celebration.
"I was just trying to tie the game," Tortorella said.
More than that, Tortorella helped give about 50 kids from the Child Abuse Council and The Children's Home a sweet day that included arts and crafts and a cookout at the St. Pete Times Forum.
It is standard operating procedure for Tortorella and wife Christine, who in their seven years in the Tampa Bay area have become ingrained in its charitable community.
With help from the Lightning Foundation, they have supported numerous programs financially and, more importantly, with their time.
From fundraising for cancer research to handing out free school supplies to the children of Hillsborough County's migrant workers, from supporting seat-belt awareness to volunteering at Tampa's The Children's Home and the Child Abuse Council, Tortorella and Christine get their hands dirty.
"John and Christine Tortorella are the genuine article," said Gerard Veneman, president and CEO of The Children's Home, which deals with abused, homeless and neglected kids. "The genuine warmth that they want to share with our kids is something I have seldom seen in my 20-some years in child welfare."
It all was on display when Green played Yellow and the rough, tough Tortorella, whose persona when in NHL mode can be about as friendly as a toothpick, was like a big ol' squishy teddy bear.
"He is down with the kids on their level, rubbing their bruised knees," said Debbie Gavalas, the Child Abuse Council's development director. "He is totally into them and making sure they're having fun. And that smile never leaves."
"That's what it's about," Tortorella said. "It's not about direction. It's not about rules. The only rules they had was not to lift your stick above the ear so you don't hurt somebody. After that, it's a little bit of controlled mayhem, and that's what they need."
Sense and sensibility
Getting the Tortorellas to talk about their charitable work had a certain Greta Garbo quality. They did not seek this article, and it took several requests before interviews were granted.
"It just creates self-consciousness to get credit when we don't feel like we've done that much," Christine said. "The agencies, they're the ones really reaching the kids. We're just tying to add a fun dimension to their lives."
She said just as much credit goes to the Lightning Foundation and executive director Nancy Crane, who makes available money and logistical support for many of the Tortorellas' charitable events, such as the coach's fishing tournament next month that benefits the Child Abuse Council and The Children's Home.
Crane acknowledged, "I'm the one with the work force that can make things happen for them," but added, "They're the ones with the heart and star power."
Veneman said when star power gets involved, it is important to take note, and not just for the publicity it provides the charities or social programs.
"It's like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," he said. "When people of wealth and fame get down in the trenches and really take the time to understand what we do, it's very affirming. It binds the community together."
Tortorella's credentials as a Stanley Cup winning coach give instant credibility to whatever he is involved with, and the family's financial security provides flexibility to pursue charitable endeavors. But he said the driving force is Christine.
"It tends to focus on me because of my job," Tortorella said. "But I look at what the Lightning Foundation has done and I look at my wife. She's the one out there. I just go along for the ride."
Christine's ride has been one of social consciousness. The 10th of 11 children seven girls, four boys born to Bill and Myrtle Mohr in Luverne, Minn., said three of her siblings are teachers and three are social workers.
Christine said she studied social psychology in college, and once drove buses that transported handicapped children. That was before the vehicles had lifts, she said, "so we had to carry those kids onto the buses.
"It's the human purpose," she added. "I believe we are here to help each other."
It is a sensibility Christine said she and her husband are trying to develop in their kids - Brittany, 20, studying education and psychology at the University of Tampa, and Dominick, 17, a high school senior whom Christine said wants to open a shelter to care for abused dogs. Both accompany their parents to The Children's Home and Child Abuse Council.
"It's important to instill in our kids that we are over-blessed," Christine said. "We have to give back."
Especially, she said, to children.
So, when Tortorella in 2005 received the Award of Excellence from the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Tampa Bay, he split the $50,000 grant between The Children's Home and the Child Abuse Council.
In April, he and Christine received the Helen Ayala Davis Award from The Children's Home for their "unwavering commitment to strengthen our community."
"When you get one-on-one with kids, they are so vulnerable and they drink it like water," Christine said. "It just amazes me from an emotional level how quickly they attach and how innocent they are considering what they've been through.
"The hard part is how much are you really doing? You have to be realistic. I just don't know what else you can do in people's lives but offer a little joy."
'He spent the day with us'
Catherine and Patrick Reeves' son Jacob was weeks from dying after two years fighting bone cancer.
The 14-year-old was a huge Lightning fan, and he and his family were "adopted" by Tortorella and Christine at the Lightning's annual Christmas party for cancer kids. When the coach heard of Jacob's deteriorating condition in June 2004, shortly after Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup, he drove the trophy to the Reeves' Brooksville home.
"He spent the whole day with us and it was just awesome," Catherine recalled recently. "A 14-year-old shouldn't be thinking, 'In a week or two I'm going to be dead.' To get something like that to take his mind off it, you have no idea."
Catherine said her son had not smiled since he heard his prognosis two months prior. "Then the day of (Tortorella's visit) he was smiling. You could just see the change in his face. He just loved it."
Stories like that don't surprise Nigel Kirwan. The Lightning video coach said there have been times on road trips he and Tortorella walked to the team hotel after dinner, "And I look around and he's stuffing $10 or $20 in the pocket of a homeless guy asleep on the street."
He and Christine buy a suite at the St. Pete Times Forum for 15 to 20 games a season and open it to cancer kids, abused kids, physically challenged kids. Christine reads her life-lesson children's book Hey, Coach, at area schools.
She said she and Tortorella will devote even more time to Tampa's Metropolitan Ministries, where last week they spent hours giving away backpacks and school supplies spokesperson Ana Mendez said were bought with $50,000 of community donations.
"We have this language in hockey," Tortorella said. "We talk about going into battle and we talk about adversity and effort and courage. With the real-life situations, with some of the things we've been involved with, especially with these children, I really try not to use those words in the locker room anymore because it's not fair.
"The real world is the real stuff these people go through. That's the true adversity. That's the true battle."