By Sean Hartnett
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The John Tortorella circus arrives in Vancouver at 4 p.m. on Tuesday. Make sure you have your popcorn ready for when Tortorella takes the podium as the newly-introduced head coach of the Vancouver Canucks.
His unveiling in front of the Vancouver media is as intriguing as a press conference gets. Hockey is religion in Vancouver. That wasn’t the case in either of Tortorella’s previous head-coaching stops in New York and Tampa Bay. The Canucks are under an intense media microscope, similar to how the Jets and the Yankees are covered in New York.
This doesn’t bode well for Tortorella and his obvious disdain for the media. After a playoff victory over the Capitals, Tortorella asked the Rangers’ public-relations staff to usher him away after a press conference ran longer than he anticipated.
“Will you get me the hell out of here, please?” he demanded after winning Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
That’s what Tortorella is like after a victory, mind you. My advice to the credentialed press in Vancouver is to follow these seven golden rules when it comes to covering Torts.
1) Do not ask about injuries. Ever.
2) Do not ask about the lineup. He will rarely give you answers.
3) Do not ask about in-game decisions. (Stop coaching, Pat.)
4) Ask questions, not statements. Keep your questions brief.
5) Never begin questions with “Could you tell me about…”
6) Be careful how you phrase questions about individual players after a tough loss.
7) Most of all, develop a thick skin.
My approach to covering Tortorella was not to step on the hornet’s nest, instead focusing on asking questions that he’d be receptive to answering. That being said, I’m not expecting the Vancouver writers to respect Tortorella’s rules. I expect many to prod him in the way that longtime New York Post columnist Larry Brooks did throughout their contentious relationship.
Still, dealing with the media is only a small part of the equation. Plenty of coaches understand how to use the press to their advantage. This doesn’t appear to interest Tortorella in any degree. His sole focus is preparing his players, and he genuinely feels that hanging around to answer questions from the media is a waste of his own time.
The larger picture and more pressing question is whether Tortorella’s methods will mesh with a veteran Canucks team.
WHY TORTORELLA IS A BRUTAL FIT IN VANCOUVER
Vancouver is a win-now team. Tortorella has a demanding, take-charge personality that is the direct opposite of former Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault, who is a calm, laid-back figure. The general feeling this offseason was that the Canucks needed a head coach who could give their stars a swift kick in the butt.
There’s a difference between a kick in the butt and choking out the confidence of star players. Tortorella does not allow skill players to express themselves on the ice, and forces them to do grunt work in his “safe is death” system.
Players who didn’t fit into Tortorella’s prototype were either relegated to the lower lines or shipped out of New York entirely. Marian Gaborik refused to bend his game and was dealt to Columbus at the trade deadline.
The talented Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, aren’t known to initiate contact. Henrik has a bit more of a physical edge to his game, but neither are going to suddenly transform into the all-effort Ryan Callahan-type player that Tortorella desires. Both are entering the final year of their contracts before becoming free agents in the summer of 2014.
That’s why Tortorella’s hire is extremely risky. What if the Sedins decide to skip town if life under Tortorella becomes miserable? Any hint of discontent would lead to big headlines throughout the season. Did Canucks general manager Mike Gillis properly examine the scenarios that could unfold?
One player who knows what Tortorella is about is Dale Wiese, who played 10 games under Tortorella in 2010-11 and endured multiple harsh Rangers training camps with Tortorella at the helm. Wiese spoke with The Province, a British Columbian paper, earlier this week.
“He did a wonderful job when he came into New York,” Wiese told The Province. “They had a good team, but they didn’t get the extra push from the coach for whatever reason. He came in and changed the culture there. He demands a lot from players.”
So far, the quote sounds like glowing praise. Read on — it turns a bit sour.
“I think you can kind of look around and see that his style is kind of fading out of the coaching,” Weise explained. “There’s a way to be hard on guys and to push guys, but I think nowadays you’ve got to be a little more of a communicator. You can’t just put guys in the dirt and expect guys to get out of there themselves.”
That last part of Wiese’s quote really stands out.
As Brad Richards’ game deteriorated last season, Tortorella kept piling the pressure on his assistant captain to the point that Richards lost his natural confidence. Richards’ role slipped all the way down the depth chart to the fourth line and eventually was reduced to a spectator as a healthy scratch in the press box before the Rangers were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
If Tortorella can deplete the confidence of a 33-year-old star veteran whom he won the Stanley Cup alongside in Tampa, his grinding personality can clash with just about anyone.
Tortorella did not take his foot off the back of youngster Chris Kreider. He repeatedly tried to force Kreider to fit his system like a square peg into a round hole, instead of taking advantage of Kreider’s raw talents. Kreider was constantly on the bus back and forth between New York and AHL Connecticut. Giving Kreider a short leash wasn’t the way to build the confidence of a promising talent.
Here’s what Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa had to say in the days leading up to Tortorella’s appointment as head coach:
Torts doesn’t sound like an ideal fit, does he?
One player who is excited about Tortorella’s arrival is Roberto Luongo, aka “Strombone1.”
Whether Tortorella will sink or swim in the bay city of Vancouver is open to debate. One thing’s for sure — Tortorella’s tenure as Canucks head coach will be full of entertaining sound bites, controversy and drama for however long the ride lasts.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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