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Coach reflects change for Lightning

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


In the dressing room of the Lightning, there are no mirrors.

The vast room is clean, orderly. There are clothes and pads and a playboard. But there is no looking glass. There is no place for a player to pause and examine the flaws in his reflection. There is no opportunity to scrutinize the shortcomings of what he sees.

It figures. For so long, it has been a room of delusion, not illumination, a place of self-deception. In here, no one notices his blemishes. In here, everyone is better than he is out there.

Until now.

Until John Tortorella.

Bluntness has come to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Honest, in-your-face, deal-with-it bluntness. The sugar is off the coats and the mince has been removed from the words. Around here, no one babies the babes of winter any longer.

Do you know what the toughest thing in sports is? It's self-awareness. It's a player being able to look at himself and not see an inflated image. It's a player knowing what he is, and what he can be, and how to bridge the difference. And in the Lightning locker room, it has been rarer than gold.

"With our kids, I'd say it's the No. 1 problem on our team," Tortorella said. "It's hard to blame them. You have the outside influences, agents and the like, telling players, "You're this, you're that, you're that.' It tends to play with your mind. Who wouldn't want to believe that about yourself? It can leave a player with an inflated opinion of himself."

To be honest, and this seems to be the theme, the organization shares in the responsibility, too. For most of its existence, through all the coaches and all the owners, the kids have been coddled. After all, they were the hope, and every regime that came along seemed to believe that the kids would ripen, as certainly as apples on a tree, and things would be great.

But when an NHL team automatically carries its No. 1 pick on its roster, when no one dares criticize the anointed ones, it tends to make players believe they are further ahead than they are.

There are poor skaters in the Lightning locker room who believe they are pretty good. There are players who aren't physical enough who believe they are bangers. There are those who think they have made it who would be in the minor leagues for 25 other teams.

Which is why there seems to be shock value to Tortorella's approach. It's like looking at a grade school where the kids have finally learned about the paddle. There are some eyes open. Whether they see, we will see.

Remember Paul Mara, who was shocked, absolutely shocked, that he was sent to the minors even though he was minus-17? Look, when a young defenseman is minus-17, he shouldn't be shocked. He should be packed. He should be volunteering to go the minors. Instead, Mara told everyone he considered himself "an established NHL defenseman."

Tortorella shakes his head at the memory.

"That scares me," he said. "And I say that with the preface that Paul Mara is going to be a very good player in the NHL. But for someone who has gone through the downs he's gone through -- and some ups, I'm sure -- and feel that about himself, it tells me he doesn't have an understanding of what it takes to play in the NHL and be an established defenseman.

"I don't think he's alone. On this team, there have been a lot of players who have been comfortable. You need to want to be the best. And you need to learn what the road is to get there."

It is the same in all sports. A few seasons ago, Bucs coach Tony Dungy told Warren Sapp a few things with similar bluntness. If you want to be good, Dungy said, you can play a lot of years doing things the way you're doing. But if you want to be great, you have to commit yourself.

It is the same thing with the Lightning. Often, players fool themselves. They think they are working harder than they are. They think they are more accomplished than they are.

For instance, the Lightning would like for defenseman Pavel Kubina to stay behind after the season and work on his skating. He has been reluctant to do so.

"Kuby's going to be in this league a long time," Tortorella said. "But is he going to be as good as he could be with his current mind-set? No. But I don't blame him. He hasn't learned that yet. Our job is to teach him.

"We're doing this to make the players better. We're not trying to rip anyone. I just think we're doing a disservice to a player to blow smoke up his a-- and tell him how good he is when he isn't."

Still, brutal honesty can have two effects on a player. It can make him better, or it can leave him bitter.

"If we lose them, then they weren't the right people," Tortorella said. "We're trying to teach them. They haven't been taught. If they go by the wayside and whine about it, they're the wrong people, and you find out about it sooner."

From the sounds of it, Tortorella's frankness has passed its first test in the form of Vinny Lecavalier. Or, as he's referred to around Lightning circles, "tomorrow."

Tortorella pointed to the bench against Buffalo on Sunday and told Lecavalier to sit and seethe. And Lecavalier did both. Tuesday, however, after a meeting between the two, Lecavalier seemed to accept the criticism and get ready to move on. What? Did you expect a 20-year-old to be criticism proof?

"He's a special player, but he's not close yet," Tortorella said. "He has to go through development like everyone else. There was a time Steve Yzerman and Mike Modano were considered young, lazy players because they only played on offense. It isn't uncommon."

It is time. Tortorella says he wants more accountability, higher standards, additional pressure. He's right. Most of us have seen so much malarkey from the Lightning that we have been satisfied by small efforts and great potential. It is time to reverse that.

Oh, it won't work for everyone. Not everyone wants to look in the mirror. Not everyone can be honest with the image they see. There will be players who wilt in the face of bluntness, players who will go away insisting they were better than the team believed them to be.

In the end, however, enough will pay attention. Enough will see what they lack, and what they want, and figure out the distance between the two.

Even on a franchise such as this, only a fool can fool himself for very long.

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