Last week the Columbus Blue Jackets announced that John Tortorella was hired to replace coach Todd Richards after the team began the new season losing their first seven games. The news was felt all the way to the Tampa Bay area. Thoughts of 2004 permeated the local sports radio talk.
Can it already be eleven years since Tortorella led a virtually unknown roster mix of young budding superstars with steady veterans to hockey’s Holy Grail? The 2003-04 NHL season was the last before the salary cap was implemented in the 2005-06 season following the lost strike year of 2004-05. It was also the season that saw the 12 year-old Tampa Bay Lightning franchise take the NHL by storm.
When Tortorella came to Tampa to coach the Lightning, he seemed to be the youngest curmudgeon in history. It took a while for the city to begin to understand the 42 year-old coach, primarily because he did not give one moment of thought to anything said outside his locker room.
Initially, it wasn’t that Torts acted like he didn’t care what folks without the Lightning Bolt sweater thought, he simply did not give a rat’s hind quarters what non-Lightning personnel said or thought. It was different but it worked. As Tortorella became more entrenched, his brash manner endeared himself to the fan base as much as it appeared to distance him from the media, the opponents and the NHL league office.
The Lightning Years
Tortorella’s tortuous training camps were legendary in the Bay area. Players skated hard, skated long, then skated some more. Say what you will, Tortorella’s method prepared his Tampa teams to play the grueling NHL season.
The Lightning teams during Tortorella’s tenure included players like Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards, both twenty-one years old when Torts arrived and drafted by the team in 1998. They were joined in 2000 by a player erroneously let go by the Calgary Flames by the name of Martin St. Louis.
These three up and comers assimilated well with the likes of grizzled veterans like Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor. Andreychuk, appointed captain by Tortorella in 2002 brought a different mindset to his charges in the locker.
Tampa sports lore tells the tale of how new captain, Andreychuk took charge and instituted the rule that nobody was to walk on the Lightning emblem in the middle of the locker room. That rule is in effect today. Good thing, as Andreychuk still works in the building as the Lightning’s V.P. of Corporate and Community Affairs.
Perhaps it was a perfect storm that then general manager, Jay Feaster, put together a roster and allowed Tortorella to be Tortorella. Opponents would attempt to get under the coach’s skin. If they ever did, Tortorella displayed the opposite.
Poor team performances pissed him off and these events were harder for the coach to hide. Through it all, the fans could sense something special brewing. The season that Tortorella was hired was to be the tenth in franchise history. The team had qualified for the playoffs one time prior to Tortorella’s arrival and were coming off a putrid 59 point performance.
Well, the team did not qualify for the playoffs in his first year as coach but the team did improve by ten points. In the following season, the team set a franchise record with 93 points and secured a spot in the playoffs.
The Lightning won a series in those playoffs against Washington before bowing in the Conference Semi-Finals against New Jersey. But the seeds were planted and the course had been charted.
The next season was magic. The three young stars, Richards, St. Louis and Lecavalier were incredible. Andreychuk was the steady veteran influence. For every thirty something like Taylor, there were an equal number of younger players with their best days in front of them like Ruslan Fedetenko and Cory Sarich.
There were players with several NHL seasons under their belt like Dan Boyle, Freddy Modin and Pavel Kubina. The team had a veteran goalie, Nikolai Khabibulin, who they got for three forgettable players along with an obscure second round draft pick. There were the tough fourth-liners like Andre Roy and Chris Dingman. Feaster secured the long playoff run with a mid-season trade for Darryl Sydor.
Khabibulin got hot towards the end of the championship year and led the team, Tortorella’s team to the Stanley Cup. In his third year at the helm of this relatively new expansion team, Tortorella cajoled, yelled and led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Promised Land in the NHL, Stanley Cup Champions.
As all coaches one day experience, Tortorella was fired after the 2007-08 season from the Lightning. The one regret felt by everyone in the organization was the fact that they never had an opportunity to defend their Cup because the strike season of 2004-05 followed their championship run.
Post Lightning Career
After being let go by the Lighting and sitting out a year, Tortorella was hired to coach the New York Rangers which lasted four seasons with some modicum of success. Then he was hired by the Vancouver Canucks before getting terminated after one year.After the Vancouver gig, it looked like Tortorella might never get the opportunity again. The coaching trend in the NHL seems to be going with the more cerebral AHL types who learn to develop players. The salary cap puts the gritty veteran types in jeopardy as teams accelerate some of their younger players that are still developing to keep the team under the cap.
Tortorella is not this type of salary cap coach. He is the kind of coach that will light a fire under his players. He is the guy that will sit his superstar if he smells that the guy took a play off. Tortorella is a throwback. Now, that his age has finally caught up to his curmudgeonly ways, Tortorella gets what could very well be his last opportunity to coach in the NHL in Columbus. One thing that Tortorella has on his resume that many NHL coaches do not is: Stanley Cup Champion.
For eight and a half weeks in the spring of 2004, John Tortorella solidified his place in the annals of Tampa Bay sports history. He led a team that nobody thought could win a championship to the toughest trophy to win in all of professional team sports.
The challenge is large for Tortorella, but the fans in Tampa remember that special championship year and we’re rooting for him. We are also creating some office pools counting the number of games before Torts tells someone to “shut yer yap”.