John Tortorella paused the tape. The volcano was about to erupt.
The film was focused on Vinny Lecavalier, a young, burgeoning star for Tortorella’s Lightning teams in the early 2000s.
It was time for conflict.
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“As soon as we saw it, we were like, ‘Oh God, this is not going to be good,’” former Lightning winger Chris Dingman said.
But good conflict?
All part of the master plan, all part of the long game in the eyes of Tortorella.
With the entire 2005-06 Tampa Bay team watching and merely waiting for the inevitable eruption, Tortorella chewed out Lecavalier. The video showed the 1998 first overall draft pick cordially chatting up Hurricanes forward Eric Staal.
Tortorella wasn’t having it.
“Vinny Lecavalier, great player, great person,” Dingman said in an August phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I guess maybe too nice sometimes? I don’t know.
“I think Eric Staal had just scored, there was a closeup right before the faceoff and the camera zoomed in, and you can literally see Vinny’s lips say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ And Staal’s like, ‘What?’ He’s like, ‘Hey, how’s it going, you’re having a good season,’ or something, something along those lines.
“So [Tortorella] just starts laying into him, like, ‘I’m just curious, what the blank are you saying to him? He just shoved it up your you know what and you’re congratulating him?’ Vinny gets mad and they’re going back and forth, you know, it was like, F you, F you, whatever.
“He was just challenging Vinny, to be honest with you. Trying to get, not more out of him, but he just did stuff like that quite a bit. … He always challenged guys.”
Tortorella was in his first full-time head coaching job at the NHL level. At 42 years old, he took over midseason in 2000-01. He turned the Lightning into a Stanley Cup champion, leading the franchise to its first-ever title in 2004.
Tampa Bay is where it all started for Tortorella, where his confrontational but caring style clicked, where his team-first culture reached the pinnacle.
Where Tortorella time was born.
The head coach is now 64 years old and still loving a good challenge. He’s got one in Philadelphia. He has taken over the Flyers, a gig he had long admired going back to 2004 when the Lightning’s Cup run went through Philly in a seven-game Eastern Conference Final.
Word is the Flyers will be his last head coaching job. Can he resurrect the franchise before hanging up the whistle for good? One last shot at a second Stanley Cup, almost 20 years after winning it for the first time?
“I think it’s going to be refreshing for the city of Philadelphia,” former Lightning center Tim Taylor said in an August phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Obviously he was a hated figure there as a coach coming in, but the fans are going to really love him because he’s very passionate. He will bleed the orange because that’s what he does.
“He’s going to get the most out of every single player there. They’re going to have a product on the ice that they can be very proud of. They might not always win every game, but they will work their tails off and they will give everything for that coach.”
The Flyers will need every ounce of Tortorella’s direction and determination. They’re coming off one of the worst years in the 54 seasons of the franchise's existence. The club parted ways with longtime captain Claude Giroux at the March trade deadline, finished 25-46-11 and missed the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons.
Tortorella watched from afar, spending last season as an in-studio color commentator for ESPN. Prior to his one-season break from coaching, he took the Blue Jackets to the playoffs four times over parts of six seasons in Columbus.
“I think John’s established himself as a top-notch NHL coach,” Flyers icon and Hockey Hall of Famer Bill Barber said in a July phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “The bottom line, he’s won a Cup, he’s got a ring on his finger and he’s had success everywhere he’s gone. I know he turned Columbus around and I believe that’ll be the case here. We’re going to try to hopefully improve our team to give him a chance to succeed here.”
When Tortorella was leading Tampa Bay, Barber was the Lightning’s director of player personnel for six years.
“There’s nothing more I would love to see than Torts have success here in the city of Philadelphia,” Barber, now a Flyers senior advisor, said. “The fans will like him. As time went on, he’s really become a better coach. He was a good coach to begin with and I think he’s better now.”
‘He s--- on everybody’
Tortorella is as defensive of his players as he is demanding of them.
He’ll have battles with them in practice or behind closed doors. But then he’ll go to war for them when it’s between the boards or in front of the media.
The fiery film session back in 2005-06 with Lecavalier was more than just loose tempers flaring. There’s a purpose to everything with Tortorella. He believes in pushing athletes to another level.
In Tampa Bay, sometimes an in-house F-you match did the trick. Other times, an opponent felt his wrath.
All for a purpose.
In his locker room, he pushed everybody. Star player. Extra defenseman. Leading scorer. Fourth-line checker.
“What I appreciated the most out of him, and I always tell people this, pardon my language, but he s--- on everybody,” Dingman said. “If he felt they deserved it, he challenged guys. A lot of coaches won’t do that. I’ve played for different coaches.”
Dingman was a tough, 6-foot-4, 235-pound role player who made a career out of doing important dirty work in parts of eight NHL seasons. He fought, he checked, he went all out in limited minutes.
And he won.
Dingman, now coaching under-18 girls’ hockey in the Northern Alberta Xtreme program, is a two-time Stanley Cup champion — once with the Avalanche in 2001 and the second with Tortorella’s Lightning in 2004.
“Torts, it didn’t matter if you were a first-line guy or a fourth-line guy, he’d challenge guys and verbally give it to them if he didn’t think they weren’t giving it their all,” he said. “That’s one thing I really appreciated about him as a player.”
When Tortorella lit into Lecavalier, it was strategic.
“I recall the story,” Taylor said. “There was always moments, defining moments for different players, where Vinny had a couple with Torts. To Vinny’s credit, like, Vinny was a star player for us and when Torts got there, it was almost like everyone received a headbutting.
“But it was a common working ground where Torts was trying to get Vinny to understand to be a leader, to be one of the players that came to play every single day and demand the best because you are the best. And he got that out of Vinny. If you talk to Vinny about him now, he has nothing but respect for him.”
Lecavalier had sky-high expectations bestowed upon him from the moment he was drafted by Tampa Bay. He entered the NHL at 18 years old. He was a captain by 19 years old.
In 2001-02, Tortorella’s first full season, the head coach took the captaincy away from Lecavalier and went with three alternates to alleviate some pressure. The next season, eventual Hockey Hall of Famer Dave Andreychuk was named captain.
“It wasn’t a punishment,” Dingman said of Tortorella’s decision. “It was Dave was a veteran guy and he wanted Vinny just to play hockey.”
In the Lightning’s 2004 Cup run, Lecavalier put up nine goals and seven assists through 23 games. His fight with Jarome Iginla in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final was a galvanizing moment for Tampa Bay. The Lightning never led in the series until they hoisted the Cup by edging the Flames, 2-1, in Game 7.
“Vinny did good, like, really good because he didn’t get killed,” Dingman said. “He hung in there, it was a good fight.
“Vinny didn’t have to fight him. … Everyone knew how tough Jarome Iginla was, he was a heavyweight in the league. He fought Deryk Engelland and beat him.
“I don’t think [Iginla] realized how much that fired our team up. We were like, ‘OK, we’re going to win.’ … For Vinny to do that, it was unbelievable.”
The next season was the lockout. Lecavalier went to Russia to play in the KHL. When he came back to Tampa Bay with the NHL’s return in 2005-06, he set a new career high in goals by burying 35. The following season, he led the entire NHL with 52 goals, breaking out for a 108-point season.
Lecavalier, who spent parts of three seasons with the Flyers at the end of his career, had his No. 4 retired by the Lightning in 2018.
His best NHL seasons came under Tortorella.
“This was one defining moment for me, that I knew that Torts got to every single player was when Vinny was upset when he came home from the KHL because he said they had no structure, they had no team structure, it was terrible playing over there, everyone was all about themselves,” Taylor said. “Vinny got it, like he understood it. Going away and spending a couple of months away, he really got an appreciation for what Torts brought to that team; not to Vinny, because Vinny was a good player. It was just he brought it into everyone, he got everyone to understand it.”
It's why he often challenged players, like he did with Lecavalier during film.
The spirited bouts with players fortified his all-important locker room.
Like a motivation scientist.
“He would go at different players in different ways to try and collectively get other guys to stick up for your teammate, go back at Torts and say, ‘That’s bulls--t, you can’t do that to him,’” Taylor, now the Blues’ director of player personnel, said. “And then the team kind of corrals around each other. … He’s a very smart person and he’s manipulative in ways, in good ways, to bring the players together, to shield the players from the outside. A player’s not playing well, he does a very good job of shielding them from the media and taking the pressure off that player. He’ll challenge a player, of course, inside the locker room by himself, but he won’t embarrass him; he’ll challenge him.”
Did Tortorella’s tactics work with Lecavalier?
“It definitely helped him because he wanted to shelter him but then he challenged him,” Dingman said. “I think he thought he was too nice of a guy and maybe he was, because Vinny is one of the nicest people.”
A master deflector
Who knows what would have happened if Tortorella never told then-Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock to shut his yap during the 2004 Eastern Conference Final.
Would the Flyers have ended their Stanley Cup drought, which still dates to 1975?
Would Tortorella be without a Cup entering his 20th season as an NHL bench boss?
Would he even be head coach of the Flyers today?
The Lightning believe they might not have reached their destiny as first-time champs that season had it not been for Tortorella’s show-stealing outburst.
A veteran-laden Flyers team landed an early haymaker by trouncing Tampa Bay, 6-2, to knot up the East Final series at 1-1.
Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin let in four goals on 12 shots.
The series was shifting to Philadelphia.
The Flyers had all kinds of experience, led by Keith Primeau, Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Jeremy Roenick.
In came Tampa’s pressure reliever, like a freight train.
Just moments after his team’s Game 2 loss — a lopsided defeat that would have been heavily publicized over a two-day break before Game 3 — Tortorella put on an epic tirade directed at Hitchcock.
“Torts lost his mind,” Dingman said. “Laid into Hitchcock, was screaming at him, ‘You don’t talk to our players, you don’t do this, that’s BS.’”
Tortorella claimed the Flyers’ head coach had said something to Lightning defenseman Brad Lukowich, who played for Hitchcock in Dallas.
“It was really a nothing thing,” Taylor said.
Tortorella turned it into gamesmanship.
“Torts really took command right away, he went right at Hitchcock right after the game,” Taylor said. “It allowed our guys, from our goaltender all the way out, to forget about what happened in Game 2 and that we were in Philadelphia, and just go out and play.”
Tampa Bay beat the Flyers, 4-1, in Game 3 to regain control. It eliminated the Flyers in seven games but never fell behind in the series.
“He manipulated his way through that series with us and helped us, helped the young players, to guide us through that,” Taylor said. “That Game 3 could have defined what happened to us, right there in the playoffs. If we lose Game 3, I don’t know if we come back. Philadelphia would have had all the momentum and their older guys would have carried them.
“But he was able to deflect all that pressure off of every single one of us and bring it on himself. The fans were booing him there, they were all over him. It was never about our goaltending, it was never about our power play, no one wrote anything about how bad we played in Game 2. It was all about Hitch and Torts.
“When I say manipulative, I mean it in a good way — that he manipulates what’s going on around to protect his players.”
Dingman called the Tortorella distraction “brilliant.”
“It was one of those things where he used the media, I guess, to his advantage and we’ve seen all the interactions he’s had with the media over the years,” he said. “It was unbelievable because no one was even talking about the game and how bad we played and that our goaltending wasn’t very good. All they were talking about was Torts, ‘shut your yap.’ On the radio airwaves and stuff, in the media, that’s all it was.”
‘He wakes up and he’s fired up’
Over parts of seven seasons with the Lightning, Tortorella didn’t make it home some nights.
After games, the studious coach would turn on the tape. He’d watch and watch and watch.
Intense and meticulous.
“If he didn’t like the game, he’d watch the game three times,” Dingman said. “I found out through the guys, he actually had a cot in his office because he’d stay at the rink a lot of times.”
Wait, he’d sleep at the rink?
“Oh, I know he did. He did,” Taylor said. “He had, like, a little couch.”
That’s one way to beat morning traffic.
“At the end of the day, he was responsible for our team and he felt that,” Taylor said. “Everyone else had their job to do, they had to cut tape, they had to do this for power play, penalty kill, 5-on-5. But then he would cut his own tape and he would go and take it to Nigel [Kirwan], our video coordinator, the next day and get done.
“But I know he slept in his office. We would come in in the morning for the next day at practice and he’d already have his jog in. He’d have the tape cut, his jog in and then after practice, he would go home to his family.
“He was just so organized and thinking constantly about what the next step was to make our team better. He was one ahead of everyone else.”
“He wakes up and he’s fired up,” Dingman said.
Tortorella’s mantra revolves around team orientation — from the players and coaches to the trainers and public relations staff.
“The thing that goes unnoticed to a lot of people that don’t know him is the passion he has not only for the game, but for his locker room, for his team, for the players — everyone that surrounds the team,” Taylor said. “He wants everyone to be treated with respect, everyone working together and collectively as a team. He just wants one big engine working in one direction and that’s trying to win.
“When he talks to the media, he likes to portray he’s this hard-ass guy and hard-nosed coach. Really, at the end of the day, within the locker room with the players, he’s very caring and nurturing to a lot of the older players and younger players. He just wants them to learn the right way and do things the right way.
“He wants everyone under the team concept. He believes that 23 are better than one, and a team, no matter skill level, can beat good teams by playing as a team.”
But, as many outsiders have surmised, Tortorella knows when to turn it up a notch.
Make that a few notches.
There’s some real no bulls--t to the fiery Boston native. If the time calls for a blowup, he’ll blow up. Doesn’t matter when or where.
In 2002-03, then-Lightning owner Bill Davidson was taken around the locker room before a home game against the Senators. He greeted players, who were happy to oblige.
Tortorella, however, may not have loved the change in routine so close to puck drop. Maybe his players would lose focus.
“We’re all like, ‘Holy crap, meet the owner, that’s nice,’” Dingman said. “We appreciate that he owns the franchise, this and that.”
Tampa Bay trailed Ottawa, 5-1, by second intermission. It lost, 6-3.
“We got smoked,” Dingman said. “It was bad.”
Tortorella wasn’t pleased.
“You can just hear him after the game, ‘F this, F that, the owner’s never coming to the locker room ever again, this is bull,’” Dingman said.
The following day, it wasn’t fun and games.
Fourth-liner Andre Roy and Russian 2001 first-round pick Alexander Svitov learned that the hard way.
“Andre Roy, who was a beauty — funny guy, one of the funniest guys I ever played with, but just sometimes didn’t know the time and place to do stuff,” Dingman said. “He got Svity to bring in the Russian national anthem, so Roysy put it on the stereo, put the CD in. Literally him and Svity are in the middle of the room. Andre learned Russian, he got the Russians to teach him Russian, so he’s saluting in the middle of the room and it’s like blaring. Obviously Torts heard it.”
“Came in the room, opened the disc player and snapped the disc in half,” Dingman said. “It was like ‘Slap Shot,’ don’t play Lady of Spain ever again.
“He was mad. Andre was like, ‘Woah, what’s the big deal?’ I was like, ‘Buddy, man, you don’t do that after we get smoked at home in front of the owner and stuff. You do that after a big win.’”
Tortorella would constantly have his finger on the pulse of the team by communicating daily with his leadership group.
Oftentimes his unleashing of emotions was premeditated.
“Torts is a guy that in practice, you practiced like you played,” Dingman said. “Obviously pregame skate was a different thing, but he was intense.
“Sometimes it was calculated. Been friends with Andreychuk, played with some guys, Tim Taylor, that he talked to regularly, there was some where he’d be like, ‘I’m going to get mad, I’m going to snap, I have to snap.’
“He just knew sometimes as a coach, you’ve got to get mad just to shake things up when guys are being complacent or you don’t like what you see. You make a big production, maybe break your stick or start yelling and screaming. You’re not even mad, but you just have to, like, make a production out of it.”
Part of Tortorella unifying his players — getting one guy to play for the other — was having members of special forces come talk to the team.
“He was really big in supporting the military and their families,” Dingman said. “And those guys are intense, like holy smoke, we had guys come in and talk about being a part of Black Hawk Down, that whole mission and stuff. It was pretty cool to listen to those guys talking, why they are the way they are.”
A bond between the ‘C’ and coach
Taylor knew Tortorella, the assistant coach. He knew him before Tortorella had ever run a locker room and led behind the bench.
The two connected in 1999-00, when Taylor was playing for the Rangers and Tortorella was on the club’s staff. Tortorella ended up head coaching four games under interim duties to finish the season.
The next year, he took an assistant job in Tampa Bay. The summer before his first full season as head coach of the Lightning, Tortorella got Taylor to Tampa. The Lightning traded for the veteran center. He became one of Tortorella’s top leaders, spending six seasons in Tampa Bay and wearing the “C” for the final two.
“I just have a lot of respect for him,” Taylor said. “To this day, I cringe when people have anything to say about him in a negative way because they don’t know him. They don’t know what he’s all about, they don’t know what type of person he is in the locker room, they don’t know what he’s given to a lot of us players and they don’t know his personality.
“It’s hard because you try not to kind of backlash people when they talk about it, they’re supposed to have freedom of speech, but it’s hard not to go at people when they say anything bad because I have so much respect for him.”
What was the captain-coach relationship like with Tortorella?
“He wanted the guys to be together, he understood and knew what a tight dressing room could do and what it does do for winning,” Taylor said. “With Dave Andreychuk and myself, he was always very close, he would talk to us all of the time, he wanted to know if the team was tired, how the team was feeling after a loss, how the team was after a win.
“He was a very connected coach to the, I guess, leadership group. It didn’t matter if you were a captain or not, he was really good at connecting with the players and making sure that he was doing the right thing.
“At the same time, you had to understand he’s still the boss, he was still the coach. You had that relationship with him, but you understood when he was upset, that he was upset for a reason.”
Taylor never took the ice for a game in 2007-08, his final season. At 38 years old, he was recovering from surgery in which he received an artificial hip. With fewer than 10 games left in a playoff-less year, Tortorella wanted to get Taylor one last shift.
The captain appreciated the gesture.
“I was, to be quite honest, very afraid to get hit,” Taylor said. “I was really nervous. I did not want to come back and just take one hit and just be out there for the sake of being out there. I wanted to actually play. I was really scared and nervous.
“He just took me aside one day and he asked me if I wanted to play. I told him, ‘I’m just scared.’ He said, ‘Listen, we’ll get you one game, bring your parents in for your last game, get them to come in, they deserve to watch you play one more time.’ I respected that with Torts. I kind of just said, ‘Torts, I played my last ever game, which was last year in the playoffs against New Jersey and we lost.’ And I said, ‘That was a meaningful NHL game.’
“I was not a star player, I don’t deserve to be able to go on the ice and wave at fans and my parents and say this is it, thank you and have a couple of shifts. I said, ‘Thank you for asking me that but it’s not the right way. I think the right way is I played a meaningful game.’”
Taylor has three Stanley Cup rings — two from his playing career and one with the Blues in hockey operations. As a player, he won it all in 1997, when the Red Wings swept the Flyers, and seven years later with Tortorella’s Lightning.
Taylor officially hung up his skates after the 2007-08 season. That was also Tortorella’s final year in Tampa Bay. He was fired in June after the season.
The end-of-the-year meeting between Taylor and Tortorella was emotional.
“I just thanked him,” Taylor said. “I broke down. I knew my career was over. … I thought I owed it to him to genuinely say thank you.
“I just thanked him for giving me a chance to live my dream again and hoist the Stanley Cup. He brought me there and he gave me that opportunity.”
‘Safe is death’
Tortorella’s system is predicated on pressure, pressure and more pressure.
Everyone has to pressure without the puck.
And it all starts in training camp and practice.
“I know John believes to play a system, you have to have it in practice,” Barber said. “He runs very high-level practices, all system related, what needs to get done on the ice, so the players are not out there thinking, they’re out there reacting and doing their jobs they need to do to succeed. I know that’s his belief in it.
“His practices are very, very high-tempo practices. They’re great and it all relates to how we play in games.
“In that time period there, he had a real good system of pressure and not giving up much defensively.”
To play such a style, you have to be in shape.
“Training camps were intense,” Dingman said.
Dingman recalled one young player coming to camp in bad conditioning.
“He wasn’t in shape and oh my God, I felt bad for this poor kid,” Dingman said. “He showed up and he was dying during the skating portions. Then [Tortorella] wouldn’t let him on the ice, he made him ride the bike and watch everyone else practice.
“I felt bad for the kid, but in the same token, your job as a player is to show up to camp in the best possible shape and if you don’t, then there’s consequences.
“He’s an intense guy, he’s 110 percent. He’s emotional, but he cares.”
When Tortorella teams are at their best, they’re making life easier on their goaltender. But everyone must buy in and play the same pressure-based style.
“It was very creative with Torts because you weren’t allowed to just sit back,” Taylor said. “He wanted your legs moving, he wanted your legs moving. So every time you were on the ice, you just knew it was part of your instinct that your legs had to be moving.
“As Player A forced the D down low, Player B was moving ahead and going down, taking that other D away. So if it went to him, you’re already there and that’s where you create turnovers. And the third guy had to stay high.
“It's no different than some of the systems that are played now, but he wanted everyone to play that way. There was no sit back. We were just full charge, full charge, full charge, so you never got caught in between; you just knew you had to go. And when you didn’t go, he was upset. You didn’t get credit for staying back and neglecting a play. What he was mad at was the play was there, you had to break it up because someone up front didn’t push that play hard enough.”
Entering Tortorella’s first full season in 2001-02, the Lightning had yielded the NHL’s third-most goals per game at 3.41 the year prior. Tortorella got it trimmed down to 2.67 in Year 1, then 2.56 in Year 2 as Tampa Bay made the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.
By Year 3, the Lightning were Stanley Cup champs. They had a 106-point regular season (46-22-8-6) and allowed only 2.34 goals per game. During the playoffs, Tampa Bay surrendered a measly 1.87 goals per game.
Dingman said “safe is death” was a motto among many of the Lightning skaters.
“Our D would be pinch, but it wasn’t an auto pinch, it was 100 percent,” he said. “If they knew they could keep it in, they would. We forechecked. He wanted us to forecheck, my line especially, but even the top lines. We weren’t sitting back. First guy went, then second guy reacted to that. The belief was if you get guys under pressure, you force them into bad situations and making bad decisions.”
Tortorella noted how the NHL’s rule changes following the 2004-05 lockout impacted the ability to pressure quite the way the Lightning did when they won the Cup. Among the changes was the red line no longer prohibited two-line passes. Essentially, more stretch passes and more offense.
“That was the last time before the new rules came in,” Tortorella said in a July phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Where you had a red line, it was a lot easier to jam teams in the neutral zone because you had the red line, they had to get to that red line. So it was a lot easier to play that pressure-style system. Still try to play it, even without the red line.”
With the Flyers, Tortorella will emphasize the effort and play away from the puck. That was probably his emphasis the second his eyes saw the Flyers’ goals-against figure over the past two seasons: 3.56 per game, tied for worst in the NHL.
Barber mentioned how Tortorella gave Khabibulin “the chance to stop the puck” for Tampa Bay.
Much less stress on Carter Hart will be key for the Flyers.
“I think it’s the biggest job, the No. 1 job ahead of me with this team here, is that we have to play better in front of a 23-year-old goalie in Carter (now 24),” Tortorella said. “We’ve got to allow him to get himself situated in this league. I think we just have to play a better team defense.
“To me, playing defense sometimes is not so much X’s and O’s — although you need to go over your coverages. A big thing is the mindset about how hard you have to play, about how hard it is for teams to get through you in the neutral zone. I think that’s the most important zone, being a team that is hard to get through before they enter your zone.
“That is our No. 1 priority, is trying to be a better team that way.”
With Tortorella’s Lightning, there was a standard from top to bottom.
“He wanted pressure all over the ice,” Taylor said. “Our biggest slogan was ‘don’t think, just do.’ That was a big thing. If you’re skating all the time, you don’t have to think about, ‘It’s a 2-on-1, how do I play this, in between or do I go now?’ It was just go. Go, go, go all over the ice.”
Guys like Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Brad Richards, Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina had to play the right way just like Roy, Dingman and Taylor.
“The checking line, you weren’t just allowed to go check,” Taylor said. “You had to produce goals, you had to produce chances. Collectively, everyone was on the same page and had to do the same things. No matter what your role was on the team, don’t accept that one role, don’t let that define you. What defines you is the team.”
Culture shock with reward
During his Flyers introductory press conference in June, Tortorella said he hated using the word culture. But many that know Tortorella’s strengths reference culture when discussing the head coach.
Because with Tortorella, it’s more than just a word.
“When he came in, there was kind of that country club atmosphere of guys had their tee times booked and as soon as practice was over, guys were out of there and heading down the course,” Dingman said. “He really came in and changed the mindset, just the perception of the Lightning. That this isn’t a country club, we’re going to be a good hockey team and we’re going to play to win and challenge to win the Cup. I think none of that happens without John Tortorella.
“So whether you like him, love him, hate him, whatever, the culture he set up for our team was that we’re going to work hard and then he gave us time off. We had weekends where we were on the road and we went to Atlantic City and went paintballing and golfing, stuff like that. I think the good thing about him is he rode guys hard, going back to training camp; training camps were really hard, but if you were in shape, you got through it, it wasn’t a problem. As the season went along, he understood the value of time off and family and getting away from the rink. He had a really, really good balance of that. He would let guys go and have fun, go for dinner and stuff like that.”
Similar to everyone, Dingman had his moments with Tortorella.
“I respect him as a coach,” Dingman said. “I don’t respect everything he did and you never will. Now that I’ve been coaching, you understand when people are upset because they think they should be playing more and different situations. But as a coach, you’re trying to win.”
If there’s a celebration at the end, the clashes are worth it.
“You don’t win without a great team, without ownership, without a general manager Jay Feaster, who supported Torts. And they had battles, too,” Dingman said. “Everyone had a battle with Torts. Jay loved Torts and at times wanted to kill him. Torts wanted what he wanted, he wanted a player, he wanted this player and as a GM, you try to get that player. He just challenged guys. When you win, I hugged him as hard as I could.”
Tortorella is not the exact same coach from his Lightning days. He has changed as the game has changed.
How is he different?
“Back in those days, I was a young coach crossing every T, dotting every I, correcting on every play,” Tortorella said. “It was too much coaching. I think at times, especially with today’s athlete, I think coaches get in the way.
“I think the biggest couple of things that I’ve changed is I’m not correcting on every mistake. I think sometimes it’s better that players go through the mistakes and kind of learn a little bit on their own where we’re not always holding their hand, because it is a game of mistakes, especially how young the league has gotten. And the thing I’ve really worked on over the years is my listening skills. I think I’ve become a better listener.”
It's not easy to develop a fair and honest two-way street as a coach and player. That will be one of Tortorella’s challenges in his attempt to turn around the Flyers. Can he push his players, get more out of them, but not lose them?
“Back then, it was player and then you have the coach, and the coach almost stood over them,” Tortorella said. “And I don’t agree with that, I don’t think you need to be on top of them, talking at them all the time. But back then, it was more accepted.
“Now, it’s a different situation, athletes want a say, they want to be a part of the decision-making, they want to be a part of the process of how we’re going to play. I do think it’s important to allow them to go down that street.
“But in my mind, you can’t go too far. I think we’ve got great athletes in our game, I think we’ve got great people in our game, but it’s human nature when you start giving them too much rope, they want even more. … That’s the fine line I think coaches walk now.
“I always call it being with them. I don’t think we need to talk at them, I think we can be with them and also get what we want out of them. I think that’s very important in coaching today.”
Along with his 106-point Cup season in Tampa Bay, Tortorella also has a 109-point year with the Rangers (2011-12) and a 108-point year with the Blue Jackets (2016-17) on his résumé.
“That’s the one thing with pro athletes is that they have different personalities and you have to find different ways to get the most out of them, the best out of them,” Taylor said. “Every team he has gone to has done that. He’s made mediocre teams very good, he’s made good teams into excellent teams, he’s made non-quality teams into really good teams.
“He’s made young players very competitive and developed them quicker than they’re supposed to be just because he’s gotten the most out of them right away and demanded that they play within the team concept.”
The two-time Jack Adams Award winner now wants his crack at rebuilding the Flyers.
Barber believes, with time, Tortorella can deliver in Philadelphia.
“We’ve got some young players that can improve, he’ll establish a real good culture that we need to get back to more so than we had in the past,” the Flyers’ great said. “I think that’ll all fall into place. And the other thing is, too, we need to be patient. Things don’t happen overnight, it’s going to take some time. I think in the case here for Torts, everyone’s going to have to be a little bit patient here, let him do his job of improving our hockey team.”
Barber shared a laugh when asked how Tortorella has changed since their Tampa days.
“I think he’s probably a little more mellow,” he said.
Dingman isn’t so sure.
“He makes it uncomfortable for players and sometimes that needs to happen,” Dingman said. “It'll be exciting to see what he does, definitely in the city he’s in. They appreciate hard work and people that play hard, so I don’t think he’s going to mellow very much.
“You never know, but I don’t think so.”
The Flyers await. They’ll be the judge of Tortorella time, the final chapter.
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