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With Tortorella gone, face of Lightning franchise changes

Tortorella talks to players as they skate between sessions during training camp, or what some referred to as “Camp Torturella.”

DIRK SHADD | Times (2006)

Tortorella talks to players as they skate between sessions during training camp, or what some referred to as “Camp Torturella.”

TAMPA

Today we should be retelling the Legend of Torts.

The live-fast, fired-young story of a hell-bent hockey coach. He taught the Lightning the meaning of accountability, a lesson plan that eventually cost him his job Tuesday.

He was fierce and unyielding. He was funny and profane. He was the toughest son-of-a-gun in the room, and that includes the guys who were paid by the stitches. Oh, by the way, he also squeezed in a Stanley Cup title.

Yes, today we should recall the Lightning's past and John Tortorella's extensive role in it.

Except right now I'm intrigued by the Lightning's future.

It is clear the Lightning did not just change a coach Tuesday. The face of a franchise was rearranged, too. Tortorella might have suffered a fatal blow, but general manager Jay Feaster was nicked as well.

After years of absentee ownership, the Lightning is about to get an in-your-face boss. Prospective owner Oren Koules might let Feaster hang around through the end of his contract, but the GM no longer will call the shots.

"The role is going to be very different," Feaster said. "That's no secret."

Koules and partner Len Barrie did not want Tortorella as their coach, and now he is gone. They want to bring Barry Melrose to town, and soon he will be at your door. They have a plan for offseason departures and acquisitions, and Feaster is not yet privvy to those details.

"Under Palace Sports I would … tell you exactly what I was going to do. Because, under Bill Davidson, it was my wedding or my funeral," Feaster said. "Whereas, with the new ownership group, there is a different way of doing business. The new owners have ideas and very strong opinions. And it's their money."

You may clap or cringe, and either response would be acceptable. The history of busybody owners is spotty at best. George Steinbrenner had passion and cash, but he also had some loco moments with the Yankees. Jerry Jones did well with Jimmy Johnson around, but hasn't had as much success as the Lone Ranger of the Cowboys.

Koules, we hope, will fit somewhere in the middle. Not as heavy-handed as some, but not as disinterested as others.

Word is, Koules has been diligent about asking opinions of those around the league. And if the dismissal of Tortorella seems a tad premature, at least it wasn't rushed. There are sound theories about how Tortorella's foot-on-your-throat style had become intimidating, or exasperating, depending on the player.

It's obvious the past few years have not gone well, so a change in direction shouldn't necessarily be feared. This team lacks depth and a strong minor-league system. For all we know, it still lacks a goaltender.

Different voices behind the bench and in the front office may be what is needed. The Lightning certainly can't get any worse than last season.

Does all this mean Koules is the answer? I don't know, and neither do you. He seems sincere. He comes across as passionate. Koules does have a hockey background, so at least you don't have to worry about a repeat of the Art Williams days — or was it hours.

So for now, the Lightning's future is in his hands. Tuesday, he used those hands to push Tortorella aside.

Understand, this was not the way Feaster wanted it to go. He and Tortorella were opposites who complimented each other. One was emotional and the other reasoned. One was loud and the other reserved.

They have been through so much together, Feaster could not even bring himself to say Tortorella was fired Tuesday. He used every polite euphemism he could find without speaking the plain truth, that his dear friend had just been sacked by his new boss.

If the future is uncertain, at least there is comfort in the past. Of finding a superstar in the undersized uniform of Marty St. Louis. Of helping Vinny Lecavalier grow from a brash kid into a strong man. Of changing the fortunes of the worst team in the NHL. Of lifting the Stanley Cup and, with it, a city.

For Feaster, there is particular meaning in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final in 2004. This was after the Lightning had been bullied by the Flyers in Game 2 and appeared timid in the aftermath.

This was the moment Tortorella decided to take the pressure off his players and place it squarely on his shoulders by calling Ken Hitchcock "gutless" and "chicken----" after the Flyers coach had done some talking of his own.

"He planned the whole 'Shut your yap' thing out. He called me that day and said, 'Tell me again what Hitchcock said last night.' So he had that thing all set to go," Feaster said. "We got to Philly for Game 3, and the people were already up in the balcony. The team walked off the bus, and nobody said a word. Nobody booed, nobody cat-called.

"That hockey team walked right in the building without a sound. The fans were all waiting for Torts to walk off the bus, and then, man, did they let him have it. It was perfect. He took it all on himself."

Four years later, Tortorella is taking another one for the team. If we didn't make it clear the first time, it should be said again.

Thanks, Torts. Thanks for everything.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

With Tortorella gone, face of Lightning franchise changes 06/03/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 1:04pm]

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