Ex-Lightning coach John Tortorella itching to coach again

Then-Canucks coach John Tortorella takes part in last season’s celebration of the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup win.
Then-Canucks coach John Tortorella takes part in last season’s celebration of the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup win.
Published Feb. 15, 2015

He sounds happy.

That's the first thing you notice. He sounds happy and content and pleasant.

Those are words not often associated with former Lightning coach John Tortorella.

When you think of Torts, the man who led the Lightning to its only Stanley Cup in 2004, you think of words such as aggressive and combative and demanding.

But that's not all of who Tortorella is. Or was. Yes, he was demanding of his players. And, yes, he could be a handful for the media at times. But to say he was a jerk is a misguided perception based solely on a handful of high-profile and very public incidents.

Most of the time, even when he was hard-driving the Lightning to improbable heights back in the day, Tortorella was a coach greatly respected by his players and even those in the media who covered him regularly.

"There are a lot of things said about me with the players and this and that,'' Tortorella said. "But they really don't know.''

So I guess it's time to let the secret out of the bag: Torts is, and has always been, a good guy.

And now the rest of the story. As happy and content as he sounds, he does have an itch. He's ready to coach again.

He gets a chance today as he coaches in a fun game against his Lightning captain, Dave Andreychuk, during Hockey Day in Tampa Bay at Amalie Arena. But he is ready for more. He is ready to step back behind an NHL bench.

"Yeah, I want to coach again,'' Tortorella said. "I hope I get that chance, and if I don't, well, then, that's just the way it is and I'll move on. But I do want to coach again.''

Tortorella splits his time these days between a place on Pass-A-Grille and a home in Stamford, Conn., outside New York City. In the summer he sneaks up to the backwoods of Wisconsin for some fishing and what he joked is a little of the "Swiss Family Robinson life.''

He kidded that not coaching has been hard on his marriage.

"Not for me,'' Tortorella said, "but for my wife. I think she's tired of having me around.''

His kids are grown. Son Nick serves in the Army. Daughter Brittany is a school teacher and a youth soccer coach.

But don't think Tortorella is just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. The man who always coached by gut and instinct is embracing analytics. Along with longtime assistant Mike Sullivan, Tortorella has taken on what seems like an overwhelming project. He is breaking down every goal in the NHL last season to discover patterns or commonalties.

There's no question that Tortorella has one of the sharpest hockey minds around. He's only 56. After being let go by the Lightning in 2008, he coached five seasons in New York and led the Rangers to the playoffs four times but was still fired.

He then moved on to Vancouver, where he was dismissed last year after one season. That leads to this shocking admission:

"We had a great first half (of the season), but I don't think I did the job for the team the second half, with our consistency," said Tortorella, whose Canucks missed the playoffs. "And I think that's what cost me my job. … We couldn't stop the losing streaks. We needed to win a couple of games within those areas. And quite honestly, I deserved to get fired after that second half of the year."

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It's stunning to hear a coach admit he that he deserved to get fired. But that's Tortorella. He's blunt. He's honest. He doesn't believe in excuses. He also knows that more went into his firing.

Midway through the season, Tortorella was so enraged by an on-ice incident that he tried to get into the Calgary locker room between periods to get at Flames coach Bob Hartley. He ended up being suspended 15 days, and that just happened to coincide with the Canucks' second-half collapse.

When that happened, everyone was reminded of his many postgame rants and infamous run-ins with certain members of the media. Everyone said, "There goes Torts again.'' That only added to his reputation, and that likely played a major role in his firing.

"I know I make my own bed in some of these different things that's happened," Tortorella said. "You're talking to a guy that went down the hallway after another coach last year, which was so, so across the line and so embarrassing to my organization and my team."

Tortorella knows his reputation. He also knows that might scare off teams looking for coach. But he also said, "I think I've controlled myself more. I've really worked at that last year in Vancouver.''

In the past year, Tortorella's public persona has softened. Example: A year ago, while in Tampa with the Canucks, he fully embraced the 10th anniversary celebration of the Lightning's Stanley Cup. He realized how special the Cup win was, how much it meant to Tampa Bay, and made the event more special by sharing a meal with his old team, and plenty of stories and smiles with the media.

It did feel a like a different Tortorella, who before rarely ever spoke about yesterdays or tomorrows, and instead preferred to concentrate only on the todays.

My guess is Tortorella will get another chance. Someday a good team that is underachieving will be looking for a spark. It will be looking for a veteran coach who could take a team falling short of expectations and lead it into the playoffs, maybe even to a Stanley Cup.

Let's hope he does get another shot. He deserves it. He's smart. He's entertaining. He's charismatic. He makes the game more interesting.

And, you know, he really is a good guy.