Hall of Famer Bob Clarke recently commented that John Tortorella – or ‘Tortellini’ as Clarke once referred to him during our epic seven-game Eastern Conference final series in 2004 – was the best coach not currently working in the NHL.
I agree with Clarke’s assessment, but I would add another of my former coaches to that list, 2001 Stanley Cup champion Bob Hartley. He won a Calder Cup for us in Hershey of the American League in 1997, one year after Tortorella’s Rochester Americans won the Calder Cup.
Torts and I had a unique relationship when we were together in Tampa Bay. We had known each other since the AHL, so when I took over as Lightning GM in February of 2002, I knew Torts was the right coach for us.
When we met for the first time as coach and GM, I told him I would support him and have his back. I endorsed the tough-love approach he was taking at the time with Vincent Lecavalier, our top prospect who was still learning and developing, although I made it clear I would not be known as the GM who traded Lecavalier. I also agreed with using merit and performance to dictate decisions on everything from who made the roster to how much they played.
Communication was the key to our relationship. We spoke, on average, two or three times each day and often much more. We talked after every game and most practices. We had an unspoken, but inviolate understanding that neither of us would meet with a player on substantive team matters (as opposed to an X’s and O’s issue or a marketing opportunity, for instance) without the other being fully briefed afterward. Our goal was to ensure neither of us was ever surprised or blindsided.
We consistently presented a united front to players. We were in it together and players saw us together. When sending a player to the minors or back to major junior, we both met and talked with the player. If players had an issue with Torts or management, we both sat down with the player and brought in others as necessary. Torts was generally briefed on our scouting discussions about players we were targeting or planning to trade and his input was often solicited. In short, ours was a partnership and we worked together for the same team goal.
As with any relationship, things were not always rosy. Torts and I had more than our share of heated arguments and disagreements over the years. However, even in those situations, we continued to talk and keep the lines of communication open.
Ours was a unique relationship of honest and open communication, mutual respect and shared belief in the “team concept,” and it helped us achieve the ultimate prize. We believe it was one of the keys to our success and will always be a necessary component of a winning team.
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2008-09 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.