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Third-graders pull power play on Bolt coach's heart

No special skeleton key or locksmith expertise can help the ordinary fan open the doors to the Lightning facilities at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Coach John Tortorella and his players treat their workout area in the bowels of the St. Pete Times Forum as hallowed ground, and access is seldom granted to those outside the team.

So how do you crack the locks to the Lightning's locker room and weight room? Get eight bright-eyed third-graders, and then watch as they break down the barriers and open up coach Tortorella's heart.

That was the scene Monday as the fiery coach welcomed Mitchell Elementary students to celebrate the release of his wife Christine's new children's book, aptly titled Hey Coach!

It sells for $12 and will be available at the forum and at tampabaylightning.com. More than 2,000 copies are being donated to children in Hillsborough schools, and Christine Tortorella will sign copies in the Hockey Bay USA store during Thursday's game against the Atlanta Thrashers.

The book follows the story of Little Bolt, a lightning bug who receives the tour of the facilities from Thunderbug, the Lightning's mascot. During the course of the tour, Little Bolt meets coach Tortorella and learns the team embraces tenets that go beyond winning and losing: hard work, honesty, discipline and respect.

The kids from Mitchell followed the path of Little Bolt on Monday, and the coach was more than happy to oblige them with the same lessons. He also dropped a few jokes along the way.

"Those are called the dumbbells," Tortorella told the kids in the weight room. "Not the players, the weights."

In the locker room, he reminded the kids that no one is allowed to step on the giant Lightning logo on the floor of the locker room out of respect for the team.

"If you step on it, you'll be fined, and I'll collect it from your parents," the coach joked.

Well, I think he was joking.

The tour concluded with coach Tortorella giving the kids signed pucks in his office, where team pictures and photos of his family adorn the walls and his desk.

Family, the coach reminded them, is what matters most.

"One of the best educations you can get is in a locker room and the principles that go through there," the coach said. "Sport is sport, but kids are kids. They're the foundation of our community."

Just like the message resonated with Little Bolt in the book, coach Tortorella connected with the kids.

"She loved it," Lisa Lastres said of her daughter Lauren. "She came home and said she can't wait for mom and dad to read it."

Christine Tortorella couldn't have been happier with the assessment.

"I care what children think and feel," Christine said. "I wanted to contribute to what they learn from our society. These lessons are a part of our life. They're part of what our own kids live and breathe every day."

It's not surprising the students came away impressed. Coach Tortorella displayed a side not always seen in his demanding pro sports environment, and Christine Tortorella has provided a vehicle for values kids can carry with them for years to come. Like the ice, it's cool.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com.

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