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Lightning's Tortorella winningest U.S.-born coach

TAMPA — Setting a national record did not seem to be the highest priority on coach John Tortorella's list.

Asked about his 235th NHL victory, tops among U.S.-born coaches, he said, "Don't bother."

Asked why he shies away from the recognition, he said, "Because it's not about me."

Actually, in this case, it is.

Tampa Bay's 8-4 thumping of the Islanders on Tuesday pushed Tortorella past the late Bob Johnson, with whom he had been tied since Feb. 29.

He also this season passed Robbie Ftorek, whose 229 victories are now third, and Herb Brooks, fifth at 219, behind Carolina's Peter Laviolette at 226.

It would seem a nice diversion from a season of extreme upheaval and turmoil that will end with Tampa Bay, last in the East, out of the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

"But Torts has never been a guy who receives accolades real well,'' Lightning associate coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's a reserved guy by nature in that regard. But it's certainly something he's deserving of.''

It's not so much the number, which is dwarfed by Scotty Bowman's NHL record of 1,244.

What adds cache to the U.S. record are the names Tortorella passed.

Johnson, Badger Bob, who led the Flames to the 1986 Stanley Cup final and the Penguins to the 1991 Cup championship.

Brooks, who coached the North Stars, Rangers, Devils and Penguins but is best known as the architect of the United States' gold medal run at the 1980 Olympics and its improbable victory over the mighty Soviet Union.

"It is a big accomplishment,'' Bowman said of Tortorella's rise. "I know how good Bob Johnson and Brooks were.''

"It's a great thing,'' said Bruins assistant coach Craig Ramsay, a Lightning associate under Tortorella from 2001 to 2007. "Those are a couple of pretty special coaches who were special to the game. When you start to be mentioned with those people, that's a very special place to be.''

The season has been anything but. Between injuries, goaltending issues, a young defense, altering the team at the trade deadline and the uncertainty of seven months, beginning Aug. 7, in which the franchise was sold, kind of, twice, the atmosphere has been tense.

The losses, including a 2-8-2 stretch entering tonight's game against the Bruins at Boston, haven't made things easier.

"The losing kills him,'' general manager Jay Feaster said. "It's taken years off his life.''

Still, it appears Tortorella, 49, and his staff if will be back to start next season whether owner Palace Sports & Entertainment or prospective owner Oren Koules is in charge.

For those players, it makes sense. The coaches are under contract for one more year, and with Tortorella to make $1.3-million, budget-challenged Palace Sports likely doesn't want to pay him and a new coach.

For Koules, an NHL novice, Tortorella is a Stanley Cup winner who has been with the team since 2000 and knows it like the back of his hand.

Feaster would not comment on contracts other than to say, "Any discussion of extensions or new contracts, until there is a resolution of the pending sale, is premature.''

But back to Tortorella's record, which Feaster called "breathing some rarefied air'' and Tortorella dismissed by saying, "I'm not involved.''

"The thing about Torts is it's never about him and he never wants it to be about him,'' Feaster said. "But there will be a time when he's going to look back and realize the enormity of what he accomplished. From an organizational standpoint, we're proud he accomplished it with us.''

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

>>TONIGHT

Lightning at Bruins

When/where: 7; TD Banknorth Garden, Boston

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 620-AM

Injuries: Tampa Bay — C Ryan Craig (knee), C Chris Gratton (hip), D Brad Lukowich (sports hernia) are out. Boston — D Andrew Alberts (concussion), C Patrice Bergeron (concussion), G Manny Fernandez (knee), C Alexei Zhamnov (ankle) are out. D Zdeno Chara (shoulder) is day to day.

Key stats: The fourth and final meeting. The Lightning is 1-2-0. & Tampa Bay is 2-17-3 with six ties in Boston and has lost three straight (0-1-2). & Lightning C Vinny Lecavalier has four goals in his past two games and entered Wednesday third in the league with 84 points. & RW Michel Ouellet has seven goals in nine games. & Bruins C Marc Savard went into Wednesday leading the league with 63 assists. & Boston is on a 1-3-2 streak, a 3-5-1 home streak and a 3-for-36 streak on the power play.

Lightning's Tortorella winningest U.S.-born coach 03/13/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2008 9:33am]
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