Second-year coach pays price as his young team's progress stalls. Assistant John Tortorella takes the reins.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2001
CHICAGO -- How do you tell your best friend he is out of a job?
That's what Lightning general manager Rick Dudley wrestled with as he drove from Detroit to Chicago on Saturday morning.
Dudley decided the best way to tell Steve Ludzik he was no longer Tampa Bay's coach was to do it quickly. This was a business decision. Their friendship would have to wait.
"It was short," Dudley said of the meeting in Ludzik's room at 8 a.m. in the team hotel. "I told him I was going to make a change. There wasn't more to say. I let him be alone with his thoughts."
When Dudley left the room, the pair, which first worked together in 1995-96, when Dudley was general manager and Ludzik was coach of the IHL's Detroit Vipers, did not shake hands.
"This was a very tough day," Dudley said. "Obviously, outside of my wife and brother, there is no one I care more about in this world than Steve Ludzik, and that makes it very tough.
"Today, probably Steve Ludzik doesn't like me a whole lot. I understand if he's a little disappointed in me."
But Ludzik, reached just before boarding a plane for Tampa, said, "We had a great ride together. We won an (IHL) championship and we set records together. It's unfortunate I won't get to see this all out, but I understand 100 percent."
Something had to be done. The Lightning (12-25-2) has lost three straight, including Thursday's awful 8-3 decision to the Senators, and won just four of its past 19.
John Tortorella, who joined Tampa Bay this season as an associate coach, was named head coach and signed a multiyear contract. His first game is tonight against the Blackhawks at the United Center. John Torchetti will remain as associate coach.
"The circumstances stink," Tortorella said. "The famous line is that it's all part of the game, but it still stinks."
But after nine-plus years as an NHL assistant, the 42-year-old Boston native relishes the opportunity.
"I feel very fortunate," Tortorella said. "Once you weave through the emotions that have gone on the past six or seven hours, we have to focus on the team."
The team has experienced great highs, such as the 3-0 victory over the Red Wings on Dec. 2 and 4-3 victory over the Flyers on Dec. 28.
But that could not tip the scales against a 3-14-2-2 road record, a power play that has converted 4 of its past 55 chances and players who, according to forward Ryan Johnson, were losing confidence in themselves.
"There's been a slow loss of confidence, not in the coaches, but in the players," Johnson said. "We've beaten ourselves many times before we hit the ice."
Ludzik leaves with a 31-74-14-9 record and a year-and-a-half remaining on a three-year contract worth $1.2-million, the remainder of which, Dudley said, will be paid. He also leaves some intriguing questions.
For two seasons, Ludzik has coached the NHL's youngest team; a great departure from the Vipers, whom he led to the Turner Cup championship in 1996-97. Before it became a Lightning affiliate, Detroit was independent and signed many veterans.
"Ludzy dealt with a hand he doesn't like," Dudley said of the Lightning. "He likes a veteran team that chews the ends off the boards."
Asked, then, if Ludzik might not have been the best fit for Tampa Bay, Dudley said he would not second-guess his hire.
The Lightning also has the league's lowest base payroll. Asked if Ludzik was given enough weapons on the ice, Tom Wilson, president of Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment, said: "It is a question of did you do enough with what you had to work with, and that's a Rick Dudley decision."
Dudley said the Lightning is good enough to make the playoffs. But coming off a 2-2-2 homestand, it gave no indication it would make a run.
Dudley told Ludzik if things didn't turn around on the road trip that began Wednesday, he would be fired.
"There's no one to blame," Dudley said. "Sometimes you just have to make a change. Most of the guys worked hard for Ludzy, and some didn't."
Tampa Bay outplayed the Hurricanes on Wednesday but lost 3-2. Then came the debacle in Ottawa. Dudley went to Detroit and conferred with Wilson, and spoke by phone with Lightning president Ron Campbell and assistant general manager Jay Feaster.
Once a decision was made, Dudley drove to Chicago and spoke to Ludzik. It was the first time he had been fired.
"Your job is to win," Ludzik said. "If you lose, they're going to come at you. Unfortunately, that's what happened in that situation. I loved the way my guys played for me. Every team knew we played hard and I hang my hat on that."
"It's the nature of the business, unfortunately, that one guy has to lose his job," center Vincent Lecavalier said. "It's a team thing. It wasn't only one person."
BORN: Boston, lives in Tampa.
FAMILY: Wife, Christine, and two children, Brittany, 13, and Dominick, 10.
COACHING EXPERIENCE: Finished 1999-00 season as interim coach of the Rangers. ... Had joined Rangers last season after two seasons with Phoenix. ... Worked eight seasons in the Sabres organization, serving as an assistant from 1989-90 to 1994-95 and as the head coach of the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League in 1995-96 and 1996-97. Guided the Americans to the 1995-96 Calder Cup Championship. ... Spent two seasons as general manager and coach of the Virginia Lancers in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League from 1986-87 to 1987-88, compiling an 87-31 record, along with league championship and coach-of-the-year honors both seasons. ... Joined IHL's Fort Wayne Komets for their 1988 playoff run. ... Served as assistant with New Haven Nighthawks of the AHL during the 1988-89 season.
PLAYING CAREER: Played at Salem State College before transferring to the University of Maine, where he twice was named an East Coast Athletic Conference All-Star. ... Played professionally in Sweden and in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League with Virginia, Hampton Roads and Erie.
WHEN/WHERE: 8; United Center, Chicago.
TV/RADIO: Sunshine; WDAE-AM 620.
THE LOWDOWN: The Lightning is winless in its past four and has lost three straight. ... The Blackhawks are 5-2-1 in their past eight but had a four-game home unbeaten streak snapped Friday with a 2-1 loss to the Oilers. ... Blackhawks G Jocelyn Thibault has given up two or fewer goals in seven consecutive games. ... Tampa Bay has scored on four of its past 55 power-play chances. ... Chicago is fourth in the league on the penalty kill with an 87.2 percent efficiency. ... Tampa Bay LW Fredrik Modin (flu) is day to day. ... The game is John Tortorella's debut as Lightning coach. He was 0-3-1 last season as the Rangers coach, closing out the season after John Muckler was fired. ... This is the only meeting between the teams this season. ... Chicago leads the series 8-7-4 and is 5-3-2 at home. ... Tampa Bay's last victory over the Blackhawks was in March 1998. Its last victory in Chicago was in October 1997.
-- Compiled by Damian Cristodero.