John Tortorella flogged talents into players and a Lightning franchise general manager Jay Feaster described as a "retirement home" into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. But by the end of his seventh season, with philosophical differences festering with his GM, the worst record in the NHL and a hands-on ownership group about to take power, the 49-year-old's status had been reduced to four words announcing his firing on Tuesday: "not a viable option."
Though Feaster said he and Tortorella remain friends, their "little old married couple" relationship was strained as the Lightning finished last of 30 team after going 239-222-38 with 36 ties and four playoff appearances since Tortorella took over midway through the 2000-01 season. Feaster stressed (as did Marty St. Louis and Dan Boyle) that the season was not Tortorella's fault. But it was a factor.
So was the reality that Tortorella would not have the same power — nor will Feaster, apparently — to affect the daily business of the team when OK Hockey completes its purchase from Palace Sports & Entertainment with Board of Governors approval on June 18. An emotional April 7 exit interview in which Tortorella suggested to Feaster it might be best he leave began the slow march to Tuesday.
"From a philosophy standpoint and the way some things went this season, this past year was a year when Torts and I were not on the same page more than we weren't on the same page for probably seven years total," Feaster said. "And there is going to be a new ownership group in. I think when you look at the way we've done business, I think it's been very unique here in that (current owner Bill) Davidson … (has) given us the tools we needed to succeed and he's approached it that it's 'your wedding, it's your funeral. Do what you guys want to do.'
"So that's the way the two of us have been able to operate. It's not going to be that way going forward."
Oren Koules, head of the incoming ownership group, declined comment in an e-mail when asked how involved he was with the decision.
Tortorella did not return calls and is to address the media this morning.
Feaster said Koules plans to meet with him around the entry draft, June 20 in Ottawa — where the Lightning is expected to select Steve Stamkos first overall — and "discuss with me the process that they would like to undertake as we go forward in terms of hiring a coach."
Despite rampant speculation, Feaster said, "I've been told twice that there is no deal in place," to hire Koules friend and ESPN analyst Barry Melrose. He added such a deal would be contrary to commissioner Gary Bettman's request for Koules to "don't act like owners until you own it."
Feaster openly lobbied for assistant Mike Sullivan to at least be interviewed for the position. Sullivan did not immediately return a call to the Times. Feaster said Sullivan and goaltenders coach Jeff Reese are expected to return.
Feaster said he has granted one team permission to speak with Tortorella, who was to earn $1.3-million next season in the final year of his contract. Feaster wanted to give the coach time to find a new job before the remaining jobs at Atlanta, Ottawa and Toronto were filled, but admitted, "there are selfish motives, too. John finding a job is a good thing for all us from the standpoint of the financial obligations."
Though the move surprised nobody, there was a tinge of sadness in what St. Louis considered the end of a rewarding era.
"Sometimes it's obviously easier to change one person than to change the whole roster," the 2004 Hart Trophy winner said. "I wish we had done better for him because he had done a lot for the organization and as hard as he was on his players, I would change nothing. He brought us a Stanley Cup, he got Vinny (Lecavalier) to play, and gave me, a no-name guy, a chance to play and took a lot of us to the highest level. He got us to the thing everybody chases."
Boyle said contrary to prevailing opinion, the often-volatile, unyieldingly demanding Tortorella had not been tuned out by a team that was no longer the group of kids he took over seven years ago.
"We know what he's like. For the veteran guys, no he didn't lose us," he said.
But he was no longer a viable option.