Tortorella bites the bullet after taking direct hit from GM


Coach insists relationship with Gillis is fantastic, despite harsh criticism of his game plan

Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella pauses for a moment during the third period of NHL action against the New York Rangers.

Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella pauses for a moment during the third period of NHL action against the New York Rangers.


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As the hockey gods love folly like the rest of us or perhaps were newspaper reporters before achieving godliness — don’t laugh, it could happen — the Vancouver Canucks’ year-end team photo was scheduled for Friday morning.

The day after Mike Gillis’s scorching indictment on radio of the style of team the Canucks have become, the general manager sat in the front row very near head coach John Tortorella, who may still have had his boss’s bootprints on his back but was facing forward to the camera. Between them, like neutral Switzerland, sat assistant general manager Laurence Gilman.

Smile everyone.

It may be a while before Gillis and Tortorella are that close again, although they did chat briefly after the photo shoot and before the Canucks practised, nine more sleeps until the end of their failed National Hockey League season.

The NHL is not investigating Gillis’s apparent hit-from-behind on Tortorella, but everybody else seems to be.

It is understandable Gillis is upset at what has become of the Canucks and demanding a return to attractive, uptempo, puck-possession hockey. But it’s unfathomable he made his ultimatum publicly, with still five games to go this season and Tortorella under contract for another four years and $8 million.

And even if, as Gillis privately asserted Friday, his comments were not intended as an attack or judgment on his coach, it’s impossible not to see in them the grim implications for Tortorella.

“I’m tired of chasing a moving target,” Gillis told TEAM 1040 radio about the Canucks’ style. “We’re going to get back to the fundamentals and the principles that I believe in, and that’s how we’re going to play. If people don’t want to comply ... we did this six years ago — we made hard choices. And those hard choices are going to come again if we don’t see people get on the same page.”

If there’s grey area in that quote, it must be the newsprint.

When Gillis and owner Francesco Aquilini hired Tortorella last summer — and who hired whom and why will fuel conjecture for the foreseeable future — the coach said the biggest regret from his previous job with the New York Rangers was that his blunt remarks occasionally and unfairly put players in the uncomfortable position of having to defend themselves to reporters against what he said about them.

Although the Canucks have been disappointing, Tortorella has seemed reborn on a personal level, displaying thoughtfulness and civility profoundly above what anyone expected.

But on Friday, he was the one forced to defend himself to the media against what someone else had said.

“I’m not going to have any comment on that,” Tortorella said initially when asked about Gillis’s remarks. “That’s a conversation that should be held internally. And that’s how I’ll go about my business.”

With the Canucks still playing and trying to win games, shouldn’t the GM also express his criticisms internally?

“Mike Gillis is my boss,” Tortorella said. “I can’t speak for Mike. I don’t want to do that. Mike and I are always talking.

“This is part of my job to be able to handle these situations. I know people are upset. I know people above me are upset. I know the players are upset. I’m upset, my coaches are upset. But we need to stay within it and keep on trying to improve.

“I can’t control what you guys are saying. I can’t coach because of what you guys are saying or coach different because of what you guys are saying or other people are saying.”

It’s no secret Tortorella made the Canucks play more conservatively and defensively when the team’s worst injury crisis in six years erupted in January. Playmaking centres Henrik Sedin and Mike Santorelli were seriously injured the same night, on Jan. 16, and by a Feb. 6 game in Montreal, the Canucks had five defencemen out with injuries.

It’s naive to think a lineup so decimated, especially when there wasn’t enough scoring depth to begin with, could do anything but retrench and try to win games by defending.

But Tortorella acknowledged Friday he stuck with the revised game plan too long. Although the Canucks reverted to their more aggressive, forechecking style after reaching their nadir with a dismal 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on March 6, Tortorella admitted it was too late to save the season.

“I had to make an adjustment when we were banged up,” he said. “I had to. The responsibility falls on me on not getting back quick enough to the style I think we should play. That’s a huge mistake by me. I think we’ve kind of corralled it, a little bit too late, though.”

Tortorella’s system had the Canucks soaring at 23-11-7 halfway through the season, but the team is 11-21-4 since then. Most Canuck forwards are having their least productive seasons in years. Tortorella insisted his preferred style of play was and is endorsed by Gillis.

“We’re on the same page, yes,” Tortorella said.

The nearest Tortorella came to confrontation Friday was when he was asked if he has hammered “round pegs into square holes” in adapting the Canucks to fit his system.

“I venture to guess that the people who say that really don’t know what we’re teaching as far as the coaching style,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I could say that. Somewhere along the line, maybe all of us at the end of the year can sit down around a table and you can tell me what you think the style is. I’d be more than happy to do that because I don’t think many people really do know what the style is.”

He said his relationship with Gillis is “fantastic” but few believe that.

“I’ve been through this so many times, it’s not about cowering away from (criticism) and changing to make everybody happy or to try to save my job,” Tortorella said. “It’s about trying to do it the right way, and I still think I’m doing that.

“My biggest focus is the players and coaching the team. That’s my job. And I’m going to coach right to the bitter end until they say: ‘You know what? We don’t want you here.’ ”

Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella pauses for a moment during the third period of NHL action against the New York Rangers.

Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella pauses for a moment during the third period of NHL action against the New York Rangers.


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