John Tortorella’s winner of a day: Going to the dogs, vowing to put some 'bite' into Canucks
Team’s new head coach ready to turn the page on volcanic reputation, start new chapter in Vancouver
New Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella at Tuesday's introductory news conference at Rogers Arena.
Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG
VANCOUVER — He had me at hello. OK, at least, John Tortorella had me at sorry.
On the first official day of his new job with the Vancouver Canucks, the notorious coach transformed from Torts-the-Terrible to John-the-Penitent. It was an astonishing start to the cleansing of his reputation. Or maybe not because Vancouver hasn't yet played a game with Tortorella and this same National Hockey League franchise once had as its coach Marc Crawford, whose mood swings between charming and miserable earned him two nicknames: Summer Crow and Winter Crow.
It's possible we were merely seeing Summer Torts on Tuesday.
But the 55-year-old, troubled that his reputation for yelling at players and reporters now clouds his fine record as an NHL coach, sure seemed genuine in his repentance.
He utterly disarmed accusers when finally introduced by general manager Mike Gillis as the Canucks' first American head coach. Tortorella was contrite and apologetic, chastened and accountable for his history of belittling the media and, occasionally, embarrassing players.
He left nothing with which reporters could attack him because Tortorella owned it all. He made this bed of nails and in New York, where he was fired as the Rangers' coach on May 29, he had to lie on it. He wants to sleep better in Vancouver, to remake himself and be known for things other than anger and arrogance.
And when Tortorella mentioned his dogs, well, it was over. Game, set and match.
No one in Vancouver is going to deny a second chance to a man who, with friends and family, took over an animal shelter in New York because dogs were being mistreated.
John and his wife, Christine, have four of them — none of them named after reporters — and these will be driven across the continent to Vancouver because the Tortorellas aren't stuffing dogs back into cages and putting them on a plane.
A dog rescuer on the West Coast. Yeah, people here might give that guy the benefit of the doubt.
“That's what I'm being known as — this guy that doesn't get along with the media and does some stupid things,” Tortorella said of his reputation during an afternoon radio interview. “I think I'm more than that. But I certainly make my own bed and put myself in that spot. I wish it didn't get out of hand in New York because I respect that organization also. I need to make some corrections.”
Earlier at Rogers Arena, when asked during an engaging press conference if he is bothered by his reputation, Tortorella said: “Honestly, yes. I'm a human being. But listen, I don't blame anybody.
“This is the mess I put myself into and this is the mess I need to get myself out of. It's very important, especially here, to know how important that situation is. I am not going to put this organization into a difficult spot. Everybody wants to be thought of in certain ways. I'd like to rectify that.”
You could see in 15 minutes what Gillis saw over many hours of interviews with Tortorella: a coach willing to change, eager to be better than he was.
There has never been any issue about Tortorella's ability to coach. There are doubts about his demanding, confrontational nature inside the dressing room and the short shelf life it creates — Gillis is giving him a five-year contract — and questions about the type of hockey Tortorella favours.
But he is 410-340-104 in the NHL, won a Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning and helped position the Rangers to challenge for one. And despite being 43-46 in the playoffs and carrying all his baggage, Tortorella was apparently the first choice of owner Francesco Aquilini and Gillis.
There have been a lot of whispers around the NHL that the GM liked Tortorella less than the Italian-Canadian owner.
“I'm not sure where those perceptions come from,” Gillis said. “I work very closely with our ownership here… and I invited them to come into this process. To be a successful organization, we need to have alignment from top to bottom. This is one of the most important decisions we've made here and it would be unrealistic to expect ownership not to be involved in that decision. At the end of the day, we were both unanimous in our selection of who we thought the best coach would be, and that's John.”
Tortorella acknowledged the need to have on his staff a voice gentler than his, an assistant coach to soften his sometimes sharp message to players. He confirmed that Scott Arniel, the minor-league coach who was a finalist for the Canucks' job and long ago spent six seasons with Tortorella in the Buffalo Sabres' organization, may be that voice.
Tortorella dropped other newsy nuggets: he will use Daniel and Henrik Sedin to kill penalties, wants to draw more from defenceman Alex Edler and believes the Canucks need “bite” and “stiffness” to their lineup.
He is eager to get to work and grateful for the opportunity. Tortorella understands he is in danger of becoming a coaching caricature, the same way Mike Keenan did later in his NHL career.
“I think (Gillis is) sticking his neck out a little bit for me because I do come with some baggage,” Tortorella said. “He feels I'm the guy right now for the team and I respect that and certainly appreciate it.
“One of my dreams … was some day I could coach in Canada. To be here now with this team … I couldn't be more excited. I mean that. I am one of the most fortunate guys to get this chance.”
He said he knew he was in a Canadian market when airport customs officers greeted him with questions about the Canucks. In Vancouver since Friday, Tortorella hasn't gone anywhere without being recognized.
“The scrutiny is there, the demand to win is there,” he said. “I want that challenge. People have been great but there have been plenty of them. I walk down the street … and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is: 'Are we going to win a Stanley Cup?' That's not a bad thing. Everybody has been great, but we haven't lost a game yet.”
The same can be said of Tortorella.
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