The enduring image this winter of John Tortorella – who was fired by the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday morning – is the fiery coach fighting his way towards the Calgary Flames dressing room after the first intermission of a heated game in January.
Tortorella was after long-time nemesis Bob Hartley, the Flames coach, a feud that goes back to the 1990s when the two were both minor-league coaches. On Jan. 18 at Rogers Arena, Tortorella was unequivocal in his purpose, looking for a fight, angry at Hartley for starting his enforcers to begin the game and the line brawl that ensued.
“I was going to get him,” said Tortorella on April 14, the day after the regular season concluded, his final press conference. “I’m not going to lie to you. Why am I going down there? I don’t know what else to tell you. And if I did, I would have. If I had got to him, I would have.”
The 55-year-old coach wielded his press-conference platform, as he often did, a showman with a professed aversion to the stage, and his final performance was a lively and raw goodbye, a half hour during which he was at times playful and often serious, critical of himself and a hockey team whose roster he called “stale.”
On Thursday morning, as the Canucks announced the firing, new hockey operations boss Trevor Linden said he will look at potential new coaches immediately. Interviews for a general manager are set to begin next week, and Linden has said he’d like a GM in place by the end of May. Given the situation, the two processes will likely run parallel.
Assistant coach Mike Sullivan, who coached with Tortorella in New York and Tampa Bay, was also fired.
“We have a lot of important work to accomplish this off-season as we build our management and coaching staffs, improve our roster and connect with our fans,” said Linden in a statement on Thursday morning.
Linden is holding a press conference at 1 p.m. PT at Rogers Arena.
Last summer, when the Canucks hired Tortorella, owner Francesco Aquilini and president/general manager Mike Gillis were charmed by the sometimes-unruly coach’s promise of fire, to bring a spark to a veteran hockey team that had been absent, one that would propel it farther into the playoffs than the squad had managed the past couple years.
It didn’t happen. Vancouver finished sixth-last in the league, with its worst record in 14 years as it managed the fewest goals scored in a full season in the four-decade-plus history of the franchise. Where Tortorella was supposed to conjure a fearsome will from his players, he instead ground them into the ice, overplaying his best players and barely playing his lesser lights. Most of the roster had dreadful seasons, led by the Sedins, who put up their worst numbers in a decade.
The Canucks were never really in contention. After a weak November and stronger December, they were seventh in the Western Conference, which is where they still stood on the fateful night in Calgary. From there, it was a tailspin, one in which, in between losing hockey games, was punctuated several times: the trade of Roberto Luongo, the non-trade of Ryan Kesler, the firing of Gillis, and the hiring of rookie front-office boss and revered hero Linden.
Tortorella’s goodbye, the day after the season ended, was a swirl of statements. As he accepted some blame, he sloughed off some too, blaming the lack of depth on the ageing roster. He made it a point of emphasis by repeating that the team was long past its days as a Cup contender. “We have to stop talking about 2011,” said Tortorella. “The team needs to be retooled.”
The retooling has begun, with the firing of the coach. It is the first step of many for Linden, who has been on the job three weeks and is navigating a high-wire act. While Linden has said he’d like a GM in place so that the person is involved in the major decisions around coaching, it looks like that might not happen. The leading candidate is assistant GM Jim Benning in Boston. If the likes of San Jose’s Todd McLellan is available to coach, there will be a swift chase to woo him.
Linden’s biggest question is how much retooling is necessary. Do the Canucks make moves and push to return to the playoffs next year, or do they see the next two years as a short-but-crucial rebuilding period? Kesler is central to this question – never mind the new general manager.
Kesler, turning 30 in August, wants to contend and the Canucks could try to sate him by bringing in a promising free agent. If a true retooling is undertaken, a trade of Kesler is the one big move the Canucks can make for a considerable return.
Tortorella—a surprise hire last June – lasted barely 10 months in Vancouver. He seemed like an odd fit from the beginning and while the experiment seemed to work for a while, the initial conclusion was correct: Tortorella and his intractable ideas about how to play hockey did not jibe with the players Gillis had assembled.
Vancouver had been leaning towards John Stevens, assistant head coach in Los Angeles and former boss in Philadelphia. But then Tortorella was jettisoned from the New York Rangers, where players chafed under his brash and aggressive style. He quickly became the favoured candidate in Vancouver, impressing the owners of the team, the Aquilini family, before the hockey bosses, led by Gillis, were also convinced.
On his hiring, Tortorella was resolute that he wanted to shed “that lunatic” – his words – reputation.
He mostly did. But when he exploded, it was worse than ever. For his actions in Calgary, which the league called dangerous and embarrassing, he was suspended 15 days, six games, four of which Vancouver lost. The tailspin was in motion.
It was a new, in some ways, a new John Tortorella in Vancouver. His well-documented spats with reporters in New York didn’t occur and in fact his podium performances enamoured local reporters, right to the end. The last press conference began with TSN’s Farhan Lalji accidently addressing Tortorella as “Mike” – Gillis having been fired the week earlier – and Tortorella had some fun, jokingly cursing the chagrined Lalji and then saying, “Are we live?”
Indeed it was live, as Tortorella, NHL stuntman, well knew. Live just like images of the melee near the Flames dressing room in January broadcast on Hockey Night in Canada, when he aimed to, but didn’t quite, get to Hartley. The early April performance was the final act for the John Tortorella experiment in Vancouver. The results on the ice were ugly. His mark, however, has been left: he’s a man who will not soon be forgotten in this town.