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Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella addresses a media availability at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C. Wednesday, Sept, 11, 2013. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella addresses a media availability at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C. Wednesday, Sept, 11, 2013. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canucks banking on fiery Tortorella to ignite rather than scorch Add to ...

John Tortorella grew up in a small verdant town outside Boston.

His family is Italian, and his parents the first generation born in the United States. His father, William, was an electrician, and his mother, Rita, raised five children – John the middle child and third of four boys. Sports were a constant. John, always shorter and smaller than the other neighbourhood boys, had an unusual ferocity from the start.

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One particular image still reverberates in the memory of Gary Conn, a teammate and roommate at the University of Maine, where the two were on the first line of the NCAA Division I hockey team. Tortorella, all 5 foot 7 and barely 150 pounds, lodged in front of an opponents’ net, absorbing the sting of abuse of sticks and elbows from defenders – “getting the crap kicked out of him,” in Conn’s words – and not yielding an inch of ice.

“The fiercest competitor I ever saw,” Conn said. “He was something else.”

The fire that had been imbued in the Tortorella boys by their father – “John never relaxes,” William, who died a year ago, had said of his son – was the only way the undersized player would make it anywhere in hockey. His hustle took him through several seasons in the second-tier minors before he blew out his left knee. On the suggestion of the team owner, Tortorella found himself behind the bench.

“What you lack in size, you’ve got to find some way to make up,” said Tortorella, relaxed and amiable in his still-empty coach’s office in Vancouver this month, before NHL training camp began. “I played hard. Whatever I did, I played hard, and that’s what I ask my players.”

Fire, however, destroys as well as fuels – a volatile resource. Tortorella’s fire has made him a winner in hockey – including a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 – but in recent years, the fire has generated more scorched earth than success. The head coach has made his name as the angriest man in hockey – “that lunatic,” in his words.

This is the Tortorella puzzle as he arrives in Vancouver to conjure something from the Canucks that was not there before. He has to contain the worst of his profane-soaked excesses but still rouse more from his players. And do it with basically the same lineup that could not get it done before.

Vancouver management – with team owner Francesco Aquilini heavily involved – decided to pull the one tangible lever it could reach, a new head coach, and chose the opposite personality of the bench boss they fired, Alain Vigneault. With the Stanley Cup fading from view, Vancouver has gambled that Tortorella’s reputation to drive players won’t come unhinged.

An old-school temperament will still work in the NHL, says John Muckler, who was head coach of the Buffalo Sabres during Tortorella’s first gig as an assistant and again with the New York Rangers before Tortorella joined Tampa.

“A coach has to communicate – and John communicates,” Muckler said. “He was maybe too hard sometimes. He wants to see everyone be successful, and when you’re not successful, he’ll tell you about it.”

It is a fine line, the point where fierce becomes something worse. In New York, Tortorella was fired after the team fell short of the mark in 2013 and some players chafed under abrasive leadership. The Rangers – now coached by Vigneault – are visibly cutting ties with the Tortorella era, with training-camp T-shirts that bear the phrase: “Clean slate. Grab it!”

Some players who have felt the wrath of Tortorella still harbour ill feelings.

John Grahame, a goaltender in Tampa, scrapped with the coach. After poor play in the 2006 playoffs, Tortorella told reporters he needed “a damn occasional save” from Grahame. Now retired, Grahame declined to comment, saying via e-mail that he has “nothing positive to say about that coach.”

Tortorella has not reached for a particular program to recalibrate his personality for his third outing as an NHL head coach. The Rangers firing was jarring enough, pushing him to retreat, reconsider his past. His wife, Christine, remains a calming influence, as do the couple’s four dogs. He regrets his worst outbursts. He believes he is not the caricature people have come to know.

In his quieter moments, there is, almost, a zen to John Tortorella. He has the mien of a teacher. During film sessions, he dons glasses, adding to the professorial mood.

He speaks of embracing the things a person can control – how hard one works, how much one prepares. For a man whose YouTube reel is all smoke-spewing-out-of-ears, it is only the public face of his personality. The less-explosive lines are almost feel-good New-Age stuff. Tortorella talks about the long season ahead, “going through the process together” with his players.

“I don’t want to be portrayed as a guy coming in here kicking everybody’s ass from the first day on,” he said.

Beyond the question of temperament – do the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, thrive under Tortorella? does Ryan Kesler? – there are Xs and Os. Tortorella is reputed by all friends and former colleagues interviewed to be an ace, an obsessed student of the game.

Of specific problems to mend, the power play is first – and yet the man-advantage was a disadvantage in New York, just as it has hindered the Canucks. In the past three seasons, the Rangers finished 18th, 23rd and 23rd, respectively, on the power play.

Tortorella took blame but also cited a missing piece on the ice, a player to quarterback. “We just didn’t have a settling influence,” he said. Vancouver has had much the same issue.

He can push for more intense play and feels the Canucks were soft. But it remains unclear how he can produce results that Vigneault could not.

The honeymoon is over. Tortorella was hired in late June, the day after his 55 birthday. It was all smiles and laughs. Reality begins now.

The regular season brings an early test: After playing the first four of six games at home, Vancouver grinds through seven games on the road through the eastern United States in 11 days.

In college, Tortorella had a meticulously organized room. He has always been neat, always prepared. It is another lever one can control, like hustle.

Rob Laird, pro scout for the Los Angeles Kings, was an early friend of Tortorella’s in minor-league coaching and recalls the inordinate time Tortorella put in at the office when he worked as an assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes.

But it is Tortorella’s most valuable weapon – his fire – that is the most difficult to control, a twitchy lever.

“It’s more of a plus than a minus,” Laird said. “But, you know, there’s a line.”

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