If the Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, then the playoff postgame press conferences of New York Rangers coach John Tortorella are the most, uh, unpredictable. Like the Derby, wagering is encouraged—"There's an over-under on how long Torts will go," Flames general manager Jay Feaster says—and hockey-loving networks on both sides of the border have superimposed a stopwatch on the screen as if Tortorella were ticking off blazing splits instead of simply being ticked off.
This is an article from the May 21, 2012 issue
The question-and-answer sessions are hockey's version of Kabuki theater, elaborately stylized and weirdly dramatic. Often bristling, his most natural postgame pose, Tortorella sits or stands in front of an NHL-logoed backdrop. A team public relations handler invites questions. As a rule the coach is loath to discuss his lineup, individual players, injuries or the opponent, so the range of topics is narrow. (In The Wall Street Journal last week, writer Jason Gay suggested 49 questions Tortorella would answer. Number 13: Is Sally Draper going to turn out O.K.?) Although Tortorella lasted just a fraction longer than 1:22 following a 2--1 Game 6 loss to the Capitals in Washington on May 9, the press conference was representative of the genre.
Tortorella set his jaw. He rolled his eyes. He followed a brusque reply to an anodyne question about a timeout by cradling his head in his hand like a third-grade teacher frustrated by a particularly dull student.
That four-minute power play that you guys had....
"It sucked." (In the second period, New York managed three shots during a Washington double minor.)
Just what did that do for momentum?
"It kills ya. It sucked."
In the perfect, hermetically sealed universe of the world's surliest hockey coach, every Game 7 would be played in Madison Square Garden. There would be no fans in the arena. No media. No owners. Maybe Tortorella could even do without referees (because Game 7s essentially referee themselves). There would be two valiant teams, competing for a chance to advance. That's it. The back-of-the-hall people could watch if they chose—cleaning staff, security guards—because these are Tortorella's folks. He knows their names. When Tony Castillo, head of security at the St. Pete Times Forum, had a heart attack in June 2010, Tortorella, who won a Stanley Cup in 2004 as the Lightning coach, often visited him in the hospital. He also has a renowned soft spot for children. A few weeks before a 14-year-old named Jacob Reeves died of bone cancer in 2005, Tortorella took the Cup to the family home in Brooksville, Fla., and spent six hours with the boy. "I wondered what Jacob was thinking about all day, knowing he was dying," says his mother, Catherine Reeves. "This allowed him to think about other things that day. He was so happy and excited. John called the day of his memorial service and four or five days later.... One time John said to us, 'I'm a coach. That's why I'm so rough. I'm not supposed to be liked.' There's a rough exterior, but he is so not like that."
There are scores of other stories about Tortorella's good works, but he doesn't want you to know them any more than he wants you to know about center Brandon Dubinsky's injured right foot. This is none of your business.
Tortorella loves mankind. People, on the other hand....
They let 18,200 paying customers and a multitude of media into the Garden last Saturday. The Rangers won 2--1, buoyed by a Brad Richards goal 92 seconds into the game, which was precisely why G.M. Glen Sather signed the center to a nine-year, $60 million free-agent contract last summer. In a seven-minute press conference, Tortorella was insightful and expansive, if not exactly relaxed, saying at one point that "where legacies are made is in the playoffs." The Rangers have a chance to further define his legacy against the Devils in the Eastern Conference finals, which began on Monday.
The last time Tortorella saw New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer, he advised him to "shut up."
Of the six regular-season meetings between the Atlantic Division rivals, fights broke out in the opening seconds of three. The nastiest, a veritable Pier 6 brawl by the genteel standards of the 21st-century NHL, occurred on March 19 at the Garden. DeBoer, who as the visitor had to submit his starting lineup first, went with his fourth-line muscle, which prompted Tortorella to respond with his toughs. DeBoer accused Tortorella of either being a hypocrite or having short-term-memory loss because on Dec. 20, the Rangers' coach had started his fourth line in New Jersey. On March 20, in response to DeBoer's story, Tortorella said, "Really, basically, just shut up. I need to also."
Tortorella sometimes fails to heed his own advice. After some dodgy refereeing led to a Flyers penalty shot late in New York's 3--2 Winter Classic victory over Philadelphia at Citizens Bank Park, Tortorella suggested the officials had conspired with the NHL and NBC in an effort to force overtime. The NHL, its integrity impugned by a coach who works about 16 blocks from its headquarters, fined him $30,000. Tortorella apologized for his "tongue-in-cheek" remarks; clearly deadpan is not his specialty. Three months later, in the wake of Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik's knee-on-knee hit on center Derek Stepan during a 5--2 loss on April 5, Tortorella called Pittsburgh "one of the most arrogant organizations in the league" and labeled Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin "whining stars." Oops. The Tortorella tote board now reads $50,000 in fines for 2011--12. "Torts," Feaster says, "was born without the politically correct gene."
Tortorella has no filter. He is practically bereft of guile. He could never placidly stonewall a roomful of reporters in the manner of, say, Patriots coach Bill Belichick. When asked to name Tortorella's best trait as a coach, Lightning star Vincent Lecavalier, whom Tortorella once stripped of the captaincy, replied, "Honesty." When asked Tortorella's worst trait, Lecavalier hesitated and repeated, "Honesty. As a player, you don't always want to hear the truth."
Tortorella has molded this team in his image: relentless, driven and confrontational. With Washington established in the Rangers' zone during the second period of Game 7, New York packed in and defiantly blocked shooting lanes, forcing Capitals point men Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik to play pitch and catch.
While Tortorella often is tweaked for his short fuse, he also shows admirable restraint. He is laissez-faire in his dealings with his star goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, giving the King his game-day space. And although blocking shots is never negotiable, the coach generally allows his most creative forwards, Marian Gaborik and Richards, enough freedom—and ice time—to create. (In the Game 7 victory over the Capitals, Richards led all forwards with 22:03, while Gaborik played a hefty 19:32.) "For an emotional guy," Lecavalier says, "[Tortorella] runs a great bench because he knows exactly what's going on. A face-off in the offensive zone, he knows who to put out there." In overtime of Game 5 against Washington, after Richards had tied the score at 2--2 on a messy stuff-in with 7.6 seconds left, Tortorella used fourth-liner John Mitchell on an offensive-zone power-play draw instead of Richards, who had been struggling against Matt Hendricks. Mitchell, 3--0 on face-offs in just nine previous shifts, won the draw cleanly back to Marc Staal, who in his first power-play shift of the game beat goalie Braden Holtby on a deflection from the point for the winner.
On the fly, the coach had rejiggered the Rangers' power play the way he had temporarily redecorated the Lightning dressing room in 2007--08, his final season in Tampa. Tortorella removed pictures of defenseman Dan Boyle with the Stanley Cup, returning them to the walls within a day after a heated dispute. Boyle, a former All-Star now with the Sharks, declined to discuss the specifics of the incident. "He was hard on everyone, but especially his top guys," says Boyle. "You have to have thick skin, but he gets guys going."
According to Feaster, who was then the Lightning G.M., the barking had become white noise to some players. During a coaching hiatus that lasted until late February 2009, when he replaced Tom Renney behind the New York bench, Tortorella worked as a studio analyst at TSN. He was dreadful. Given the inherent artifice of the medium, a man can hardly be himself, but Tortorella could never figure out how to be even a TV version of himself. This is the deal: An analyst generally has five seconds of introduction, a 15-second explanatory video clip and a 10-second wrap. Instead of tossing out one question for Tortorella to gnaw on for a half minute, TSN host James Duthie would have to prepare six because he never knew when Tortorella would give a one-word answer. "One night Torts says, 'I love this: coming here, eating pizza, talking hockey and watching games with you guys,'" Duthie recalls. "'I just wish we didn't have to do the TV part.'"
The performance art of his post-game remarks will continue to dazzle the hockey nation for at least another round, so the question arises whether a tart Torts is good for the NHL. Well, an Original Six franchise from Gotham in the Eastern Conference finals can only be invigorating, even if the focus sometimes drifts to two minutes at the mike instead of the 60 on the ice. The snippiness can be grandly diverting—Tortorella's butting of heads with Larry Brooks of the New York Post is so renowned that his fellow coaches at the 2010 Olympics (Tortorella was an assistant to Team USA coach Ron Wilson) started calling Orpik, an American blueliner, "Larry" just to get a rise out of Tortorella—but ultimately a Cup semifinal is not a hissing contest.
On Jan. 17, after the Rangers shut out the Predators at the Garden, New York owner James Dolan unexpectedly took the podium in the interview room before Tortorella's press conference and began rambling about a pact he had made with Sather that centered on the team's ultimately winning a Stanley Cup. He added, "And I think we're pretty close to getting that thing back." Tortorella used his turn at the mike to say, "I have my owner up here talking about a Stanley Cup. That's a bunch of bull----."
By mid-June, Tortorella might have to issue another apology.