John Tortorella: Canucks GM’s guy or the owner’s guy?
Fiery, fired Rangers bench boss poised to become new head coach in Vancouver
Former New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella walks through a throng of reporters and cameramen to a side door leading outside, where there is a waiting vehicle, upon arrival at the Vancouver International Airport in Richmond on Friday, June 21, 2013. Tortorella is considered close to being announced as the Vancouver Canucks’ new head coach.
Photograph by: Darryl Dyck, Canadian Press
VANCOUVER — Freaky Friday was the day Alain Vigneault went to New York and John Tortorella came to Vancouver. But only one of them was officially introduced as a head coach.
The notoriously fiery Tortorella, fired three weeks ago by the New York Rangers and replaced by the ex-Canuck Vigneault, flew to Vancouver Friday afternoon to meet a third time with management and ownership and likely finalize a deal to become head coach here.
National Hockey League teams don’t generally interview someone three times for one job. A third visit is usually to negotiate a contract. Tortorella travelled to Vancouver on a connecting commercial flight from Denver and, remarkably, other passengers noticed him.
Reporters staked out YVR for Tortorella’s arrival but Canuck staff whisked the team’s next coach through a secondary door at the arrivals’ level and into a waiting SUV.
Tortorella answered no questions and there was no official announcement from the Canucks.
General manager Mike Gillis, speaking about 90 minutes later on Team 1040 radio, said only: “We’re trying to finish off the process of selecting the next head coach. It’s ongoing as we speak and hopefully it will be over shortly.”
Gillis said “I can’t say at this point” if it will be Tortorella.
There had been an increasing buzz around the NHL this week that Tortorella was the Canucks’ guy. But an uncomfortable question arose: Is Tortorella the GM’s guy or owner Francesco Aquilini’s guy?
Aquilini, whose family’s investment in the Canucks is every bit as emotional as financial — and they have a tonne of money at stake, has been highly involved in interviewing coaching candidates. One source indicated it was an extremely unusual process, with the managing owner and other Aquilini family members fully participating with Gillis in interviews, rather than allowing hockey operations to sort through candidates before presenting finalists — or the winner — for the boss’s approval.
On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with ownership’s involvement, as long as Aquilini allows Gillis to make the key hockey decisions.
But an owner hiring a coach can quickly lead to dysfunction within an organization as the coach, understandably, may eventually regard the general manager as little more than an employee and will cater instead to the owner’s wishes.
The Canucks had a glimpse of this chaotic theatre in the late 1990s when previous owner John McCaw fired general manager Pat Quinn, then hired coach Mike Keenan, who was found to be unmanageable by subsequent GM Brian Burke.
Fortunately, the Canucks have no such void in management this time, but Gillis will have to explain that Tortorella was not foisted upon him by the owner and why he is the general manager’s first choice. Los Angeles Kings assistant coach John Stevens is the other Canuck finalist — and one apparently without a chair now that the coaching music has stopped and the Rangers have Vigneault, the Dallas Stars have Lindy Ruff, the Edmonton Oilers Dallas Eakins and the Phoenix Coyotes re-signed Dave Tippett.
Given Gillis’s stated desire for a coach who favours offensive hockey and one who will be patient and positive enough to integrate young players and allow them to grow, the blunt, abrasive Tortorella seems far from ideal.
But he won a Stanley Cup nine years ago with the Tampa Bay Lightning, helped rebuild the Rangers and is a master button-pusher who will shake any complacency from a stale, veteran Canucks team.
The press scrums with Tortorella are can’t-miss viewing, but will the Canucks be as entertaining and successful under him as they were under Vigneault?
Across the continent Friday, Ranger general manager Glen Sather reiterated that the Rangers’ years-long scoring problems were a key factor in firing Tortorella.
“There’s a lot of great things that I like about John (but) I think we needed to make some changes just to get our offence moving a little more,” Sather told reporters in New York during the televised press conference introducing Vigneault. “We had a lot of discussions over the years about that, and the conclusion that I made in the end is that it was time to make a change. We’ve done that.”
During Tortorella’s four full seasons in Manhattan, the Rangers ranked 11-16th in scoring and 13th-23rd on the power play. They became known for their defensive play and the coach’s deployment of six puck-stoppers: goalie Henrik Lundqvist and five skaters who collapsed around the net and clogged shooting and passing lanes.
Several questions to Vigneault from New York reporters were about changing the Rangers’ style of play and boosting the offence.
Before this season, the Canucks were among the NHL’s highest-scoring teams four straight years and twice led the league in goals.
In a post-press conference phone interview Friday, Vigneault said that among his many achievements in Vancouver he was most proud of the development of players like Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Kevin Bieksa, Cory Schneider, Alex Edler and Jannik Hansen.
“I like to think I helped all those guys; we all grew together, professionally,” Vigneault told The Vancouver Sun. “But seeing those guys become fathers and grow into real classy gentlemen, that was important to me. We came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup (in 2011). I really appreciated those guys, really loved them. I wish them nothing but the best, except against the Rangers.”
Vigneault also said he appreciated what Gillis and his assistants, Laurence Gilman and Lorne Henning, did for him and thanked Aquilini for his support of the team.
“There are only 30 of these jobs and I’ve been able to coach in three of the best places in the NHL,” Vigneault, whose NHL head coaching career began with the Montreal Canadiens, continued. “I understand how lucky I am. I was a better coach in Vancouver than I was in Montreal due to the experience I got in Montreal. And there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be a better coach in the New York with the Rangers because of the experience I got in Vancouver.
“I had seven great years in Vancouver and I’m going to remember that time for the rest of my life.”
But it now appears to be John Tortorella’s time in Vancouver. For better or worse.
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