Before she became one of the most well-known women in sports broadcasting, Erin Andrews got a crash course in hockey reporting from the unlikeliest of mentors.
Looking for her first long-term gig after graduating from the University of Florida in 2000, Andrews landed with the Lightning as a rink-side reporter in September 2001 at 22.
But she didn’t know anything about hockey. Growing up in the Tampa Bay area, she went to a Lightning game here and there, but she was fuzzy on the difference between a power play and a penalty kill. She crammed the day before her interview with a copy of Hockey for Dummies bought at a Barnes & Noble.
Andrews had another reason to be nervous. The Lightning wasn’t in the best state, having recently hired John Tortorella as coach to replace fired Steve Ludzik.
A reporter who knew nothing about the NHL wasn’t exactly the person Tortorella wanted around his team.
“I had heard through the grapevine (Tortorella) wasn’t really too thrilled about getting a young female sideline reporter fresh out of school. I mean, he was working with one of the worst teams in the league,” Andrews said. “It had been awful, and he was trying to get them to pay attention and didn’t want any distractions.”
But avoiding Tortorella wasn’t an option. She was intimidated by him and the explosive personality many knew him to have, but she had a job to do.
“I walked up to him, and I just said, ‘Hi, I’m Erin Andrews. I’m gonna be really honest with you. I don’t know anything about the NHL. I am a huge sports fan. All I kind of really know about is the Florida Gators because I just graduated college, but I’m willing to listen and I’m willing to learn.’”
A couple of months after she started, Andrews asked about how defenseman Nolan Pratt had made an impact on the team given the recent stretch of good games it had been playing.
Tortorella stopped the media scrum and told her it was the first good question he’d heard all day. She had proven herself to him.
That job helped spark a career that led Andrews to bigger opportunities at places including Turner Sports and ESPN. It also brought her back to Tampa in 2004 to cover the Lightning on the biggest stage in hockey: the playoffs.
“(The Lightning) put me on the map,” said Andrews, now a sideline reporter for Fox’s NFL broadcasts. “And if you think about it, it could have been just a really rough go for me. You know, it’s a bunch of professional athletes and (a professional) organization, and (yet) they were so welcoming and wonderful to me.”
None more so than Tortorella.
• • •
Andrews and Tortorella grew close during her time with the Lightning from September 2001 to April 2002. They’d ride together on buses and planes. They’d go over film, then he’d quiz her afterward.
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He’d hold her accountable during media sessions, too. When other reporters shied away from asking tough questions, he’d expect her voice to pop up in the scrum.
On one occasion, no one wanted to ask why a certain player had missed practice. Andrews waited, then bit the bullet.
His response? “Great (expletive) question.”
Outside the rink, he shared some of his best practices for warding off jet lag.
“Don’t sit on the bed, don’t lie on the bed,” he told her. “Get right to the workout room because you don’t want to feel bad. You want to feel good about traveling.”
Looking back, Andrews said Tortorella helped make a better reporter. He pushed her and taught her a lot.
It’s why a conversation in late March 2002 was one of the hardest of her career.
The Lightning were out of playoff contention heading into a three-game road trip to Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
Andrews had received an offer from Turner Sports to work the upcoming baseball season and eventually the Thrashers’ NHL season in Atlanta. But she would have to leave the Lightning before the current season ended.
Cooped up in her hotel room in Ottawa, Andrews bawled her eyes out while on the phone with her parents, who were vacationing in Key West.
Andrews didn’t want to leave the team or Tortorella. They’d become her family. But her father, Steve, a longtime investigative reporter for Tampa’s WFLA-Ch. 8, told her she couldn’t pass up a national opportunity.
On the flight back to Tampa the next day, she asked Tortorella if they could chat. They went up front and he said: “I heard you’re leaving us.”
She started to cry.
But Tortorella agreed with her dad. And if it didn’t work out, he said, she could always come back.
Two years later, Andrews was out at Turner Sports after her contract wasn’t renewed. So she pitched herself to ESPN — literally going to talk with the broadcasting crew in Atlanta — knowing the network would be covering the 2004 NHL playoffs and the Lightning had a chance to win it all. She landed an initial eight-week deal.
She covered the second game of Round 1 between the Lightning and Islanders. After a 3-0 loss by the Lightning in Game 2 that tied the series at one game each, ESPN moved Andrews to the Western Conference playoffs.
She covered games from Detroit to San Jose. Then the Lightning made the Stanley Cup final. ESPN offered Andrews another contract, this one more long term.
“It was one of the best moments of my career,” she said about covering the Cup final against the Flames. “And it was one of the coolest experiences of my life.”
She lost 15 pounds during the series. She ran from morning skates to practices to games. The Calgary-Tampa trip involved a pair of flights and multiple layovers. But Andrews didn’t care.
Andrews remembers standing in the hallway between locker rooms and sprinting toward the Lightning’s when Marty St. Louis scored in the second overtime of Game 6 to force Game 7.
She also remembers wearing a bright green shirt for Game 7, which Fox Sports Sun re-airs this morning. It’s something her family, especially husband and former NHL player Jarret Stoll, still chuckles about today.
“I was just so happy,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve seen myself smile that big before on television, and it’s because of the organization and those guys.”
And a coach more known for his growls than his grins.
Check it out
More than 15 players, management and coaches from the 2004 team will be on an open Zoom conference call for fans Saturday at 7 p.m. prior to the Fox Sports Sun re-airing of the Cup-clinching Game 7 victory at 7:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast again Sunday morning at 9.