OPEN MIC: Lightning coach John Tortorella

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Jim Kelley

John Tortorella is a coaches' coach. He's a guy who doesn't suffer pretense. He's one of those up-from-the-ranks coaches that isn't about how he looks, how he projects to the media or even how he can keep his job at all costs. He coaches because he likes to coach, he likes to teach and he likes to compete. He especially likes to see his players develop both as players and as individuals and he'll go to any lengths — within ethical and reasonable boundaries — to make that happen. That's created "issues" within the camp from time to time. There were numerous reports last season that Tortorella wanted highly regarded, but previously underachieving, forward traded and that Lecavalier wanted out of Tampa to get away from Tortorella. There were issues with the front office as well, issues that involved change and friendships lost and the like. All and all, an unsettling time. FOXSports.com caught up with Tortorella as his Tampa Bay team was passing through Buffalo. FOXSports.com: Let's do the Vinny Lecavalier thing right out of the box. I know it dogs you everywhere you go, but what's the real story regarding your relationship with a player that many say was looking to wreck you and/or the franchise? John Tortorella: Yeah, a lot people ask about that, especially in Canada where they seem to want to make it a personal thing between me and him. Look, the biggest thing with Vinny is he's answered the challenge. He's answered the challenge not only from me, but from the organization and inside that (locker) room as well. Lots of people were doubting him. I wasn't doubting him. I just wanted him to go through the process that a lot of young players have to go through.
NAME: John Tortorella
POSITION: Head coach, Tampa Bay
OTHER JOBS: Began his coaching career with the Virginia Lancers of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, where he also served as general manager for two seasons. He won two titles there and two Coach of the Year Awards. He was head coach of the Fort Wayne Komets for one year in the International Hockey League and then joined Rick Dudley as the assistant coach of the New Haven Nighthawks, where the duo had great success. He later joined Dudley as an assistant coach with the Buffalo . He was later head coach of the AHL Rochester Americans, assistant coach and head coach of the New York and associate coach and head coach with Tampa Bay.
WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW HIM: Tortorella came up through the ranks. A college player with some European and minor-league playing experience, he honed his craft in the minors before he broke into the NHL as an assistant under Rick Dudley. He also worked under John Muckler in both Buffalo and New York, coached Rochester in the American Hockey League and joined Muckler behind the bench of the New York . When Muckler was fired there, Tortorella finished the season as the head coach and then was out of work until rejoining Dudley with the . He's considered one of the NHL's better teaching coaches, and an intense competitor.

FOXSports.com: You mean grow up? JT: I mean just answer the challenge of being a player, maybe a great player in the National Hockey League. I think he wanted to do that all along, and when he came to camp this season he was in great shape and he came to camp with a whole different look. To me he looked pissed off and like he wanted to prove a lot of people wrong for second-guessing him. I think he just answered the challenge. Like I said, he came to camp with a whole different look. He's playing harder and he has made himself accountable in all parts of his game, and we as an organization know that if he continues to grow that with him and and (goaltender Nikolai) Khabibulin and some of our other guys coming along that we'll have a good foundation to build on and compete. FOXSports.com: Seems like it's taken awhile? JT: He's still pretty young and at some point, every kid has to go through this. This is a young man we're talking about here, not a machine. I don't blame him. He's young and he comes to an organization that was just fighting to establish itself to be able to compete in the league, and right away it's all on him. The biggest mistake starts off right from the get-go when he gets drafted and the (previous) owner (Art Williams) says he's "going to be the Michael Jordan of hockey." That should never have happened and that really made it tough. There were a lot of pressures like that, and it pounds on him and pounds on him. He was asked to do a lot before he even got out on the ice. We've been fortunate in that now we have guys like and , veteran players who know what it takes to compete in this league, in that locker room. Dave and Tim have helped him understand what it takes for him to be a pro, but I've got to say that Vinny did a lot of it on his own. When you think about all that, drafted and named a captain and a franchise player at such a young age and then there was this thing and that thing. I was tough on him and tough on us too. Every decision we made — and they weren't easy decisions because they could have gone the other way — but every decision was made was made in what was best for him and for the hockey team, and I hope Vinny came to realize that. I know it got public sometimes and maybe it didn't look good, but I'm not concerned with what the politically correct decision or approach was, I was concerned with doing the right thing for Vinny and the hockey team. FOXSports.com: So you really just wanted him to perform? JT: We want every player to perform and to be accountable for his performance. We can come in with all the Xs and Os that you can think of, but in the end, it has to come from them. What we've tried to develop here is accountability and Vinny was involved in that. It was never a personal thing. I have no right to get down on people personally, I'm a coach and I try to do what's best for all the players on the team. But give all the credit to Vinny. He came in totally focused this year and he was in camp from the start (he was a holdout who missed all of camp last season and had asked to be traded) and that matters as well. His career is on track and I take no credit. Coaches are like guidance counselors. All you can really do is guide them, but they have to put the gear on and play. For me, he had to play as a part of this team, and he's done that. FOXSports.com: For you it always seems to be about team, is that the overriding theme to your approach? JT: The concept of team, of playing as a team, has to come from within that (locker) room. That's the bottom line. You can pound the team concept into them over and over, but it's no good if it's just coming from me or the coaching staff. The pressure from within the room, that's where a sense of team comes from. If you don't have that peer pressure to perform like a professional, then there's nothing for the players to follow and the younger players don't develop. One of the best things about our team this year is that the locker room has straightened out and there is accountability and that comes from peer pressure. Andy (Dave Andreychuk) and Tim (Taylor) are at a point in their careers where they're teaching the younger guys to be pros, to be accountable to each other. FOXSports.com: OK, moving on. The are having success this year. Your team wins at home and it wins on the road. It competes successfully in a league that is very tough on teams that are trying to build from within. What are some of the other elements of your team's success this season? JT: I'll answer that in order:
  1. Everyone was in camp right from the start this year. I thought that was very important. We started on what we wanted to do right away and everyone bought in.
  2. allows you to be a puck-pursuit team because he covers up your mistakes. When you have a goaltender who plays like that, he lifts the whole team. He allows you to play with a certain arrogance on the ice and I think that's very important.
  3. Our first game of the season was against (geographical rival) Florida and we got down two (goals), yet we came back to win it, and we did that a couple of other times and mentally our confidence just grew. We've stepped back from time to time on that road, but we still know what we've done in the past and you can build off that.
  4. We've grown. We've learned that you have to respect your opponent but not fear him. You can't backpedal when you play this game. We give chances and make mistakes, but we tell our guys not to be afraid to make mistakes. Craig (associate coach Craig Ramsay, a veteran of a lifetime in the game as both a player and a coach) has a saying, "Safe is Death," and we have that on our wall. It's a great saying and it's true.
  5. Our locker room is strong. If there's something or someone going wrong, that thing or that guy has to be straightened out before you get on ice, and our locker room is as strong as its been in the three years that I've been here.
FOXSports.com: A lot of young teams play a trapping, defensive style, they play not to be scored on and then hope they'll score, maybe on a turnover or something. You guys don't and I sense that's a coaching element. Does Craig Ramsay have a hand in that? JT: It's our approach. We're trying to play a puck-pursuit game. Rammer (Craig Ramsay) was one of the best defensive players of his day. He won the Selke (best defensive forward) during his career, but that pigeonholed him as a defensive coach and he's the furthest thing from that. He's very aggressive on playing the game in the other team's end. Best thing he brings here is the fact that he's one of the best teachers in the game. With the younger players especially, he can explain things exactly as we need to teach them, and he does it in a way they understand. I've learned from him too. We see a lot of the game the same way and we've tried to get our players to see it that way too. He's been very good for me in learning to deal with things off the ice too. FOXSports.com: The Tampa franchise has long been synonymous with frustration or perhaps "struggle" is a better word. You've seen a lot of change there, including last season when the general manager who hired you, Rick Dudley, was ousted. Did that bother you, and why have things turned around down there? JT: Understand this, I have all the respect for Duds (Dudley). He's one of the smartest hockey people I ever met. I don't put the blame on Rick Dudley for what went on here, but there were a few problems communication-wise and a little knee-jerking in the way of reaction and they (ownership) decided to make a change. We have a coaching staff that works with Jay (new general manger Jay Feaster), and Jay has stabilized things with the ownership. One of the things we're trying to do is gain credibility as we go through (the growing process). Some of the player transactions (in the past) maybe weren't always best for what we were trying to achieve long-term as a franchise. Things have definitely slowed down in that regard. We've identified our core people and we're trying to build around them. We're trying to grow as a franchise, but we're not trying to do it all at once. The stage we're at right now, we have a very strong foundation with young people, good goaltending and veteran leadership. As we move (forward) we have to make decisions as to which way to go. As we develop and get stronger and more successful, that will likely be the time that we add to what we've got. I'm fine with that. I'm a coach and whatever they have for me, that's what we're going to be coaching. FOXSports.com: Whatever else might be said about Rick Dudley, you must wake up every day thanking him for making the deal that brought over from Phoenix. It seems in this league that if you want to compete on a nightly basis, it all starts from the goal out. JT: It's amazing. Defense is the toughest position to play, but goaltending is the most important. If you don't have it you simply don't win in this league. Nicki is the first piece and the most important piece. Getting him was such a great deal. We don't even start building until that position is worked out. He's the main piece of puzzle. FOXSports.com: Your reputation as a coach, coming up as an assistant, time spent in the minors, and as a head coach in the AHL and the NHL, is one of intensity. It's gotten you into trouble from time to time. Have you changed in that regard? JT: I work on being less intense, but I don't know if I am or not. Craig is cerebral and I work off that. I still get emotionally involved in the game, but I've tried to learn to be more patient and accommodating. I learn from Craig and I learn from the players. If you don't keep learning or think you can't learn, you're done. We do a lot of tape work with the players and I think it's important, but I've come to understand that players can't follow a script. They have to make split-second decisions in the game. I've learned the way they see the game. The thing I understand more is you have to understand each player and you need to respect them. You have to keep a fine line of authority but allow them to communicate with you. Not every athlete is the same. They all have a different personality. You have to get them all to play with a team concept. That's the biggest thing and it's a constant challenge." Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Lightning, Vincent Lecavalier, Tim Taylor, Nikolai Khabibulin, Dave Andreychuk, Brad Richards

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