Thursday, September 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Fennelly: Warmer, fuzzier, less crazy (maybe) Tortorella is winning again

TAMPA — John Tortorella, the winner who drove the Lightning all the way to the Stanley Cup, was at Amalie Arena on Friday to honor the legacy of Marty St. Louis, whose number was retired. Tortorella brought along his hockey team, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

There are those who thought Tortorella would never get behind a bench again, never get another coaching job, that his legacy would at best be a turgid mix of great success and unfortunate confrontations that left him a caricature. People forgot how great a coach he is.

Well, here's a reminder.

After the St. Louis ceremony, the Blue Jackets beat the Lightning 3-1. The Blue Jackets are beating lots of teams. They're a wonderful story. Columbus entered Saturday 29-8-4 for 62 points, most in the NHL, after finishing 27th in the league last season, which included an 0-7 start, which prompted a firing and Tortorella's hiring. Tortorella has been named an NHL All-Star Game coach.

Johnny Torts, the comeback kid.

These Blue Jackets openly flirted with history, running off 16 consecutive wins, one shy of the record set by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins. The Blue Jackets! The streak began with a Dec. 5 win over the Lightning. It was recently ended by Washington.

In between — and here's the real story — John Robert Tortorella encouraged his players to embrace the streak.

"I wanted them to enjoy it," he said. "And I tried the best I could to enjoy it, too."

That wouldn't have been the old Torts, in Tampa way back when — or even in Columbus last season.

"I think I would have sucked some of the fun out of it," he said.

Maybe all the oxygen, too.

Behold the new Torts. Okay, maybe not new. There was always caramel center, a good and decent man, behind that razor wire.

But Tortorella, 58, is trying something new.

"Quite honestly, I'm on the back nine," he said "I don't have many years left in this. I do want to try and enjoy it a little bit, too. I'm very fortunate to have a young group that I love being around."

The Blue Jackets, who have made the playoffs in just two of their 16 seasons, are doing it behind the goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky and a blend of talented youth and rejuvenated reclamation projects. And with Johnny Torts.

"He just gets guys to get to levels I'm not sure they could," said Columbus center Brandon Dubinsky, who also played for Tortorella on the New York Rangers. "He gets more out of players than any coach I've ever played for."

"I make no bones about: Our locker room stunk of entitlement in Columbus last year," Tortorella said. "I thought the locker room in Tampa stunk of entitlement when we first started."

As this Columbus team has gained his trust, Tortorella has eased off, eliminating morning skates, for one thing. Why, at the end of one successful western swing this season, Tortorella handed his corporate credit card over and told his players to go have a ball in the bars.

"I did do that," he said with a smile.

"I'm not sure loosening the reins is the right way to put it. I'm trying to not give them too much information. I'm trying not to overcoach them."

Some things never change. When Tortorella, already the winningest American-born coach in NHL history, won his 500th game last month, the organization wanted to honor him before a game, Tortorella had his usual response: Not a chance.

"If you make this about me, we're done," Tortorella tells media.

Even when he has gone off, Crazy Torts, brain in flames, it wasn't about him. It was about fighting for his guys.

At the moment, we seem a long way from the Torts who stained his one-year stay as coach in Vancouver when he tried going after Calgary coach Bob Hartley in an arena hallway.

YouTube City.

"I've made my own bed with some of the doozies I've put out there," Tortorella said.

Let's hope there aren't any more of those. There are no guarantees.

Tortorella, the head coach for Team USA at last year's World Cup of hockey, was lambasted for roster choices before the USA went winless in the tournament. But the real deal was when he blasted off over all this anthem sitting, announcing that any USA player in the World Cup would be benched if he sat out the anthem. It created a stir. Tortorella never backed down. His son Nick, in Army Special Forces, just returned from Afghanistan.

"The amount of crap I caught was from about 75 percent of the people," Tortorella said. "But the 25 percent, it was four-star generals. Nick was in Afghanistan. The guys over there loved what I said."

Back to the game he loves.

"I want to enjoy it more," Tortorella said. "There were a lot of years, no matter how well we were going, I just didn't enjoy it. I didn't trust the guys enough. I felt I needed to keep it on the track all the time."

He has never walked into Amalie Arena since 2004 without looking up at the Cup banner.

It's part of his legacy.

So is this season.

Johnny Torts, back on track.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow: @mjfennelly

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