Nice to know some things never change. It was two hours before the Rangers faced the Panthers on Wednesday at the BankAtlantic Center, and New York coach John Tortorella greeted a reporter with a warm handshake — and a warning. "You're not getting anything out of me," he said. When he coached the Lightning, Tortorella declined to address games not next on the schedule. And with two days until the Rangers' matchup with Tampa Bay, his first against the team with which he spent seven seasons and won the 2004 Stanley Cup, the parameters were the same.
Even after a feel-good 2-1 shootout victory, Tortorella declined to talk about facing his old team.
"I told you," he said politely but sternly, "I'm not talking about that (stuff)."
Whether he likes it or not, the talk is about him heading into tonight's game at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.
Elevated from assistant in January 2001 after Steve Ludzik was fired, Tortorella was the iron-fisted leader of a team that morphed from bottom-feeder into champion. He said what he thought, often indelicately, to players, management, anyone, without much worry about offending.
Tortorella to then-Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock during the 2004 Eastern Conference final: "Shut your yap."
He was intense, he was prepared, and he won, including two Southeast Division titles, with four straight playoff appearances.
Tortorella was fired after a 2007-08 season in which Tampa Bay finished last in the league. He called new owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie "cowboys" and said he had "zero respect for them."
Former Lightning general manager Jay Feaster, who worked closely with Tortorella, said the ending should not tarnish the coach's legacy:
"This community and this fan base has to recognize he was responsible for making this hockey club Stanley Cup champions."
The Rangers hired Tortorella in February after firing Tom Renney.
What will it be like seeing Tortorella on the opposing bench?
"It's going to be weird," center Vinny Lecavalier said.
Of all the players Tortorella coached, his relationship with Lecavalier seemed most volatile. It certainly was the most scrutinized.
"He pushed the guys to the limit," Lecavalier said.
Asked if Tortorella made him better, he said, "Yeah, he made a lot of guys better players. He brought us to another level. I'm happy he coached me."
"He got every ounce out of his players," right wing Marty St. Louis said. "He's an emotional guy, and he'd act on his emotions a lot. There were days you didn't like him, but at the end of the day, he got the job done."
Tortorella and wife Christine were deeply involved in the Tampa Bay community and gave their time to several charities. They still have a home in Pinellas County. Yet Tortorella's reluctance to talk about his homecoming is difficult to overcome.
"That's just his nature," said assistant coach Mike Sullivan, who followed Tortorella from Tampa to New York. "He wants to make sure the focus is on the hockey team. But I'm sure it's going to be an emotional game for him. He accomplished a lot there and poured his heart and soul into the organization for a lot of years. I know it holds a special place in his heart."
Tortorella finally gave in after Thursday's practice at the Times Forum.
"I loved my time here," he said. "The community treated my family and I well.
"But when we start playing and I'm coaching the other team, it's about trying to win a hockey game. I have no time to think about anything else. It's not about me. It's not fair. I'm the coach of a hockey team trying to win a game, that's all."
As we said, some things never change.