Friday, April 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Tortorella's fire was positive for Lightning

Now that he is unemployed, will you shed a tear for Torts?

After all, John Tortorella is the finest hockey coach Tampa Bay has ever had. He lifted the Cup. He raised the standards. He shut the yaps. As much as anyone, he made this an essential hockey market.

Or now that the Rangers have had their fill of him, do you cheer that Tortorella is gone?

After all, Tortorella was a constant case of bad mood. Always he was a bully in search of a target. He stepped on toes. He rattled cages. He hurt feelings. There were times he was the smartest man in the room and times when he was the only smart man in the room.

Or given that this is Tortorella, do you simply shrug?

With Torts, it was always going to end this way.

Some guys are built for the long haul. They make the right moves, they say the right things, and they hang around long enough to become the face of a franchise. That is not Tortorella.

On the other hand, some guys are like a bobcat in a burlap sack. Such coaches grind their team to dust. They push and they prod until finally their team has had enough.

That is Torts. He is a wildfire who is destined to burn out. He is a fine coach, a wonderful coach. But the 54-year-old rides the nerves of his team. There is always something going on with Torts, something annoying or amusing or destructive or delightful. He is so driven that after a while, it sucks all the oxygen from the room.

This player stinks. This one should be benched. That reporter is an idiot. That coach is a blowhard. The fan had it coming. And on it goes.

It's a hard way to coach in 2013, snarling and snapping your way into the playoffs. And so it was bound to end, especially in New York, especially given the size of the contracts and the heft of the egos on the Rangers. Eventually, the Rangers, face blisters and all, turned on Tortorella.

Ah, but there was a time …

Look, Torts was a hard guy here, too. He was wound so tight that he made the lights flicker when he walked into a room.

On the other hand, this was a perfect situation for Tortorella. When he arrived, the Lightning was a mess. There were too many entitled athletes, too many guys who thought hockey was a moonlight skate. Tortorella changed that. He changed the standards and the expectations and the accomplishments. And that core group of players — Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Brad Richards, Dan Boyle — was at its best.

In some ways, he was Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden. He helped the team rise from the rubble, and he finished the job. No matter what happened in New York, that doesn't change.

Oh, even back then, Torts could be a long day at the office. His playoff news conferences were famous for their brevity, and there were some members of the media he simply didn't like very much.

Ah, but when Torts was in the mood, he could regale you with hockey stories. I liked him. He would stand in a back hallway, explaining why he did this or why the Lightning needed that. In those moments, you could see how passionate he was, how consumed by this game he was, how little patience he had for those who were not.

Say this for Tortorella: He never backed down. He was a rolling ball of barbed wire every day he was here. Ask Ken Hitchcock.

It was during the 2004 Stanley Cup run and Hitchcock, then the Flyers coach, had said something to one of the Lightning players. Torts went full meltdown on Hitchcock, telling him to shut his yap (among less printable things).

The next game, Torts walked onto the ice to the full wrath of the Philadelphia crowd. But his job had been done. No one was talking about his goalie, who suddenly seemed vulnerable. No one talked about the power play or the shaky passing. They talked about Torts.

Later, Torts swore it hadn't been just a tactic, that he really had been angry at Hitchcock. Judging the anger over the rest of his career, that's possible. But it worked perfectly. There has never been a moment in Lightning history quite like "shut your yap.''

Eventually, when Len Barrie and Oren Koules came to town, one of the first (and worst) decisions they made was firing Tortorella in favor of Barry Melrose, who stuck around for 16 games.

Torts ended up with the Rangers. He went to the playoffs four times. He won 171 games (53 games over .500). He didn't win the Stanley Cup, but the Rangers have missed on that in 72 of their past 73 seasons.

In other words, the numbers had nothing to do with it. The Rangers just grew tired of the flavor.

That's the thing that his next team — and there will be one — should remember. With a coach such as Tortorella, the fuse is always burning. His energy, his fire, is good for a while, but only for a while.

In the meantime, it's going to be a wild ride.

Strap on the seat belt, won't you?

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