It was the morning of Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup final and John Tortorella was holding his daily news conference after the morning skate. Poor John Lu of TSN, likely on instructions from back in the newsroom, asked Tortorella if there was an extra sense of urgency to winning the Cup given there would probably be an extended labor dispute the next season.
It was at that precise moment in time, as near as I can tell, that Tortorella became what he is today. Tortorella ripped mercilessly into Lu in front of all of his peers and basically said it was the dumbest question he had ever heard. It was not a shining moment. It was also not a stupid question, considering the circumstances. Tortorella essentially emasculated a reporter from a reputable network, one that would later provide him with work as an analyst when he was between NHL coaching gigs, for no apparent reason.
But there was almost certainly a method to Tortorella’s madness. It was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, which is as pressure-laden as you’re going to get in hockey. Ever. And Tortorella was doing what Tortorella now does to perfection. He was taking all the pressure off his team and placing it squarely on himself.
You can question all you want whether Tortorella’s tactics actually work. I would guess they don’t have much of an effect either way, but this is the way he chooses to do things. It’s nothing personal, just as it wasn’t with John Lu back in 2004. In fact, I wonder if Tortorella even recalls the exchange.
Much has been made of Tortorella’s dealings with the media through the playoffs and much of that is white noise. Tortorella’s job is to win games for the New York Rangers. It’s not to make friends with those who cover the game or sell or promote it in New York. I’ll always remember the sage advice I received from a veteran early in my career covering hockey. I was lamenting how difficult one player was when it came to interviews and I was told, “It’s not his job to fill your notebook.”
And Tortorella knows this very well. I recall my days as a reporter with the Toronto Star – back in the days when newspapers actually cared enough to spend the money to send a reporter into the visiting city a day early – and whenever I went to Tampa, Tortorella would spend an hour or more after practice chatting with the two or three beat reporters who covered the woeful Lightning. Tortorella was funny, engaging, insightful and patient, because selling hockey and educating people in Tampa about the game was part of his job, along with reviving a moribund team. Now that he’s in New York and that is no longer part of his job description, he doesn’t do it. Of course, in Tampa his motto was “Safe is Death” and now he coaches one of the most defensively stultifying, least aggressively offensive teams in the league.
Actually, I find the whole situation with Tortorella kind of amusing. And sometimes there are a lot of us who agree with him. Case in point was during the first round when one of the reporters lobbed a lazy “please talk about…” question at him and he fired back, “Ask me a question.” The mind games played between Tortorella and the media can actually be a lot of fun and I wish I were part of them on a regular basis.
So when Tortorella says that Carl Hagelin “stinks on the power play,” he’s certainly not doing it to slag his own player. In fact, my guess is he would have said that about any one of his players because, in reality, the Rangers all stink on the power play. And as a coach, Tortorella has to accept some responsibility for that. My guess is he did it to motivate Hagelin and I wouldn’t be surprised if he throws Hagelin over the boards on the first power play of Game 3 against the Boston Bruins Tuesday night.
And it’s not as though Tortorella plays favorites. In fact, he’s very much an equal opportunity (insert expletive here). This past summer after the Rangers acquired Rick Nash, Tortorella was talking about the possibility of playing Nash on a line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. His response? “At times, Gabby and Richie played well together and at times they were brutal together. I’m not sure it will ever work.” And he was referring to two of his best players at the time.
Say what you want about Tortorella, but the man can coach. If you want to question him, do so on the basis of his record and how far he takes his teams. Wonder all you want whether the Rangers are better served by his defense-first philosophy and criticize him incessantly if you think his team approaches every overtime as an opportunity to stifle the game and do almost nothing offensively.
But don’t judge him on his news conferences and his personality. You don’t have to like the way he conducts himself, but my guess is Tortorella isn’t losing a lot of sleep over it.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.