VANCOUVER – John Tortorella was surprised the subject did not come up in the first question, but he did not get angry or yell.
Yes, the new Vancouver Canucks coach acknowledged Tuesday, his reputation needs some restructuring, and he vowed to improve it as he attempts to give the city a long-sought Stanley Cup.
“This is the mess I put myself into, and this is the mess I’m going to get myself out of,” Tortorella said during a news conference.
The Canucks named the fiery Boston native as their replacement for Alain Vigneault, the winningest coach in franchise history. Known for being abrasive, Tortorella is perceived as a bench boss who can lose his temper quickly, sometimes blasts players in public, and has little time for questions from reporters.
Vigneault was known more as a cerebral coach who laughed on many occasions and had a rapport with the media. But Tortorella, dressed in a dark suit and tie and smiling at times, turned on the charm at a news conference, even thanking a reporter for her question.
It was all part of Tortorella’s effort to let people get to know him better and deal with the media more effectively.
“I know how important that part of the job is here,” Tortorella said. “When you lose your job, you crawl into a hole a little bit, you reassess yourself, you try to learn, and I have certainly gone through that process.
“Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. I make my own bed in this type of situation with the perception of myself in the media. But I know how important it is with this job here, especially in this city and this province.”
He is also known for battling verbally on occasion with players. But Tortorella, who has 24 years of coaching experience and won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, still vowed to be demanding of his charges and hold everyone—including scoring stars Henrik and Daniel Sedin—accountable.
“We have a really good leadership group … but we have not won the Stanley Cup,” he said. “There’s going to be more asked of (the players), and that starts from the twins right on down.”
Gillis indicated that Vigneault’s tenure with the Canucks had run its course after seven seasons.
“You have a shelf life as a coach in the National Hockey League,” said Gillis. “And, occasionally, a different voice is necessary.
“I think John just has a different voice than Alain. Alain’s a very good hockey coach. John’s a very good hockey coach. But they approach it from different places and they approach it in different ways, and I felt it was necessary to make a change.”
Gillis said the team’s ownership group was involved in the interviewing process, but he dismissed the idea that the Aquilini family chose the new coach.
“At the end of the day, we were both unanimous in our selection,” said Gillis.
The 55-year-old Tortorella has reached the playoffs on eight occasions and won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in 2004. He was let go four days after the Rangers’ season ended with a second-round loss to the Boston Bruins.
An assistant with the Rangers in the 1999-2000 season, he took over for John Muckler as head coach for the final four games. Tortorella later spent seven seasons as head coach of the Lightning before taking over as head coach of the Rangers in February 2009.
Vigneault was let go after the Canucks were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year. He guided the Canucks to a berth in the Stanley Cup final in 2011 and helped the team win the Presidents’ Trophy on two occasions, as well as six Northwest Division titles.
Tortorella, the career leader in wins by a U.S.-born coach with 410, served as an assistant for the American team that won silver at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and has also coached at the world hockey championships.
He will attempt to rebuild his reputation while coaching for the first time in Canada—something he has always dreamed of.
“To be involved with this, I couldn’t be more excited,” he said. “It’s always something I thought about and wanted the opportunity.”
But while Canadians are known for being tolerant and accepting, Tortorella will still not find it easy to deal with a loss while coaching north of the border.
“Everybody says: Be a good loser,” he said. “I think if you’re a good loser, you are a loser.”
Meanwhile, some of Tortorella’s former players credit him with turning them into winners and helping them extend their careers—despite his temperamental ways.
“Personally, I think he’s a good coach, but it takes a special player to play under his coaching,” said former NHLer Brad Lukowich, who played under Tortorella during two stints with Tampa Bay, including the 2004 Stanley Cup victory. “He’d come in and tell us what to do, and he held us to the highest degree of accountability.
“Once we figured that out, we gelled and we became a good team.”
Lukowich said the team succeeded because assistant coach Craig Ramsay, goaltending coach Jeff Reese and captain Dave Andreychuk acted as buffers between Tortorella and players. During the second stint, Ramsay, Reese and the retired Andreychuk had left the team, while captain Tim Taylor and key leader Dan Boyle were injured much of the season.
The team was unable not achieve the same success and Tortorella continued with his abrasive ways. But Lukowich, now an assistant coach with the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, credited Tortorella with extending his career by eight seasons.
Lukowich also played briefly with the Canucks under Vigneault. While Tortorella tended to be serious and battled with players, Vigneault sometimes took a lighthearted approach to serious situations to help his players feel better.
But the former Canuck and Lightning defenceman contended that Tortorella’s temper should not be the thing for which he is remembered most.
“Don’t judge the guy on his emotions,” said Lukowich. “He’s an incredible coach.”
Lukowich also advised Canucks to be ready for “Camp Tortur-ella” and the coach’s demands for being in top physical condition.
“If you think you’re in shape now, start working out even harder,” said Lukowich. “It’s like the Navy Seals of the NHL. It’s something else, I’ll tell you. I’m sure glad I don’t have to do that again.”
Dixon Ward, who was a member of the Rochester Americans team that Tortorella guided to a Calder Cup title in 1995-96, also praised Tortorella with extending his career.
“Torts was the head coach there and the assistant coach and, at the time, the trainer as well,” Ward said. “He was the only guy on the bench that we had.
“He brings a lot passion overtly to the game. What you see is what you get with John Tortorella … and it’s infectious. At least, it was to us. I knew it was to me. He allowed me to learn different parts of the game that allowed me to go on and spend the next eight years in the NHL after that.”
Tortorella has already worked with Canucks centre Ryan Kesler, who was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver.
“(He’s) an intense guy and very detailed and wants his players to play hard,” said Kesler. “That’s what I like about him. He’s going to hold us accountable. And if we’re not, we’re not going to play.”
But Kesler suggested Tortorella will not necessarily coach the same way that he has in the past.
“He’s going to adapt once he figures us out,” said Kesler.
Henrik Sedin said Tortorella can help the Canucks become a better team.
The Sedins are entering the option year of their contracts and hope to work out a new deal with the Canucks this summer. Henrik Sedin indicated the choice of Tortorella as coach will not change their desire to stay.
The Canucks captain expects negotiations to begin in the next week or so.
“If you produce and you play the way you can as a player, I don’t think it matters what coach you have,” said Henrik Sedin.