This is not the John Tortorella you’ve seen before, at least for now.
Call it the remorse and rehabilitation of Tortorella, a fiery Boston native, 55 this week, who suddenly was unemployed a month ago. Jarred by his unexpected joblessness, Tortorella crawled into a metaphorical hole to shout at himself, mull what went wrong and what he could do to fix it.
Then Mike Gillis came a-calling. And Gillis, president and general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, loved what he heard from the coach – attitude, passion, preparation, playoff acumen, specific readying for particular opponents, detail, excitement – and perhaps Gillis, like owner Francesco Aquilini – also was a little dazzled by the diamonds on Tortorella’s Stanley Cup ring from Tampa Bay in 2004.
The Canucks’ new head coach – made official Tuesday morning – most of all promised not to be “that lunatic” (his own words). That’s the image the 5-foot-8 coach and his grey goatee has come to be known by in the little village that is the NHL.
His debut as Canucks coach was a highly managed affair that befits the calculating organization. After a press release, in-house feature interview, and a YouTube interview, more than 50 journalists descended on Rogers Arena for their own glimpse. Aquilini was in the crowd, as were four players, captain Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Jason Garrison and Chris Higgins.
Most of all, everyone at the club wants people to know that this is an evolved, Vancouver version of Tortorella. For a team with expensive tickets, barely able to sell out its playoff games last spring (both losses), this Tortorella is not the same guy who was so often prone to bark nasty curses at reporters or his own players – in one scene from late 2011 on HBO, the curses spat at his millionaire troops registered at seven in 60 seconds.
Whether Tortorella can succeed where former Canucks coach Alain Vigneault failed remains to be seen. They are not dissimilar, with a focus on defence. But such questions remain abstract. On Tuesday at Rogers Arena it was a wedding day, celebratory, with smiles, throbs of love. Full of promise. Emotional pain, late-night caterwauling come later.
“I made my own bed with this, with this stuff that is on me,” Tortorella said. “But you know what? I think I’m a pretty good coach, too. This is the mess I put myself into, and this is the mess I need to get myself out of.”
Should the Canucks struggle in their new, more difficult division (goodbye Colorado, hello Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim), the version of Tortorella might be less 3.0 and more anachronistic. Tuesday, he was everyone’s chum. He had a big smile. He shook hands with reporters. He thanked one radio reporter for her question about his charitable work.
So what stoked the legend, the angry man?
“Because I hate losing,” he said. “Because I hate losing. I do.”
There remains a hint of a Boston accent in Tortorella’s voice, answering a question about “snapping” that he (politely) cut off.
“That’s a big part of it. I can’t stand losing. Everybody says, ‘Be a good loser.’ I think if you’re a good loser, you’re a loser.”
It drew a smile from Kesler, who later said: “We need to be tougher to play against.”
Where the Canucks failed last season, in the estimation of Tortorella, is a lack of “bite,” inadequate “stiffness” when it matters. Tortorella expects more ferocity from his charges, shot-blocking included, and it will include the Sedins, who Tortorella said would play on the penalty kill, which Gillis later adjusted to the “third-line” penalty kill.
The Canucks now will play grinding, playoff-like hockey all year long, though all involved insist that that does not mean sacrificing offence for defence. To endure the grind of 82 regular-season games, plus the playoffs, plus the Sochi Olympics for the Sedins, Kesler and probably Tortorella, there will be rest days, and easier and fewer practices.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a type that comes in that yells and screams,” Henrik said. “It has to make sense. As a player, you have to sit there, and say, ‘Well, he’s right, this is the way it should be.’ There’s nothing wrong with doing that.”