TAMPA — As much as Lightning coach John Tortorella said it is "an honor" to lead the U.S. team at the world championship, he was not an easy sell.
Tortorella said, and Thrashers general manager Don Waddell confirmed, it took a commitment from USA Hockey to supply young players that are "ready to win" to seal the deal.
"We need to look by the old school," Tortorella said. "We want players to go over there and want to play, not look at it as a chance for a vacation and then play some hockey."
Tortorella stressed, "This isn't a criticism of anybody else. It's just something I believe in. You play to win. It's a great situation in the changing of the guard."
Said Waddell, part of USA Hockey's management committee: "Our discussions were very positive. We were both on the same wavelength."
Compare that to the nebulous situation Tortorella is in with Tampa Bay, which also faces a makeover after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02.
He and his assistants, all of whom have one year left on their contracts, seem likely to be back for 2008-09. That seems especially true if Palace Sports & Entertainment retains ownership as there likely is little enthusiasm for paying Tortorella $1.3-million not to work.
If Hollywood producer Oren Koules buys the team, it seems Tortorella, the coach since January 2001, would be an anchor for a novice owner. Unclear, though, is Tortorella's relationship with former NHL player Len Barrie, an unconfirmed part of Koules' OK Hockey.
No one in a position to know will talk until the ownership situation is resolved. Tortorella, coach of the year in 2003-04, when he led Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup, talks only business.
After Saturday's 2-1 victory over the Hurricanes, won with a third-period goal, Tortorella said such tight games can help correct late-game failings.
"Our third periods put us in the situation we're in," he said of 21 losses, 14 in regulation, when tied or leading after two periods. "It's not one particular position. It's our whole team, and that falls with me. I simply haven't gotten the message across correctly in a more consistent way.
"Everybody has to give skin. The players have to do it, but the coaches have to make sure they understand it, and I don't think we've done a good enough job of that this year."
Tortorella will push himself as hard as his players, which brings us back to the world championship that begins May 2 in Halifax and Quebec.
"One of my first conversations with Donnie Waddell was we're going to bring structure to it," said Tortorella, who will bring his associate coach, Mike Sullivan. "We're going to try to win. It's not going to be a vacation."
Certainly an easier sell to the enthusiasm of youth.
Waddell said he spoke by phone to Tortorella for 45 minutes after inviting him to coach, explaining USA Hockey's youth movement that began at last year's world championship. That team averaged 24 years old and was without former mainstays such as Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Derian Hatcher and Jeremy Roenick.
The pool now includes young stars such as Boston's Phil Kessel, 19; Chicago's Patrick Kane, 19; St. Louis' Erik Johnson, 20; and Phoenix's Peter Mueller, 20.
"Last year, we turned the torch over to the younger players," Waddell said. "Now it's time for them to run with it."
Waddell said how the team responds could "open the door" for Tortorella to coach at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
It likely won't matter when it comes to his job with Tampa Bay.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]