Tortorella looks to change image as Canucks coach

Tuesday, 06.25.2013 / 8:15 PM
Kevin Woodley  - Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- John Tortorella was introduced as coach of the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday, promising to rein in the combative personality that turned him into more of a caricature than a coach, at least when it comes to dealing with the media.

The players can expect more of the fire that made him famous -- or infamous.

Fired by the New York Rangers shortly after losing to the Boston Bruins in five games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Tortorella landed quickly on his feet with a five-year contract from a Canucks team trying to recover from a second-straight first-round exit that cost coach Alain Vigneault his job.

With Vigneault hired to replace Tortorella in New York last Friday, it essentially became an offseason coaching swap -- a first in the NHL, according to the Elias Sports Bureau -- between the Rangers and Canucks, with the two fired coaches talking "every other day" for two weeks, according to Tortorella.

"It is a little bizarre," Tortorella said, "but speaking for myself, at my stage of my career, to have this opportunity in Canada, in this city, I am pinching myself."

Despite the unique circumstances, and a lot of questions about how he planned to get an aging team out of two-year Stanley Cup Playoff funk, or why the Canucks hired a coach who preaches a shot-blocking style Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis has openly lamented, Tortorella spent most of a half-hour introductory press conference trying to explain past confrontations with the media.

"When you lose your job, you crawl into a hole a little, you reassess yourself, you try and learn," Tortorella said. "Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. I make my own bed in this type of situation with the perception of myself in the media. I know how important it is with this job here, especially in this city, in Canada.

"I am going to work at that to cultivate a relationship with all of you."

Tortorella said it was troubling that his reputation overshadows a coaching career that includes winning the Stanley Cup and Jack Adams Award with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, and a silver medal as an assistant coach with the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

He has a 410-330-37-67 record in the NHL -- the most wins by an active American-born coach -- and three straight playoff appearances in New York, including an Eastern Conference Final appearance two seasons ago.

The Canucks went out of their way to start crafting a new image for Tortorella, with a story on the team website featuring him talking about a desire to end his legacy as "that lunatic," a graphic highlighting numerous and admirable charity programs he works with, and an online question-and-answer session with fans.

That appeared hours before his first public availability, but it didn't deter the dominant line of questioning from reporters about his persona and why it often blows up.

"Because I hate losing," Tortorella said. "I can't stand losing. Everybody says, 'Be a good loser.' I think if you are a good loser, you are a loser. But I certainly can't put people in the situations I've put them in, especially this year, when I put a couple of players in a bad situation by my actions with you."

For all of Tortorella's talk of wanting to "rectify that," there were no apologies for how he coaches, even if there was some resistance to the label of "defensive coach." And despite saying several times he needed to "learn more" about his new players, there was no hesitation -- but few specifics -- about how he planned to improve a team that came within one win of a Stanley Cup in 2011 but has one win the past two playoffs combined, including being swept by the San Jose Sharks this year.

"We need more bite," Tortorella said. "The attitude of this being a stiffer team is going to come to the forefront as we try to build this to get this to another level."

As for where it will come from, Tortorella stressed the importance of developing more young players like he did in New York, a past criticism of Vigneault and something Gillis has stressed since the season ended. But the Canucks, who have several no-trade contracts on a roster that is near the salary cap and may be tough to shake up, aren't loaded with top prospects, and have stressed skill at the NHL Draft under Gillis.

So it sounds as though Tortorella will simply ask for -- demand -- more from all.

"The stiffness of your team and the mindset of your team is the most important thing entering playoffs. We can talk about Xs and Os and all sorts of situations; I think the mental part of the game is the most important part of the game," Tortorella said.

"I know how I am going to approach it. It's going to be asking the players that are here, and hopefully younger players coming through, we are going to ask for more out of them. I am going to push the players."

It won't always be the profanity-laced dressing room tirades that quickly became part of Tortorella's legend in New York through the HBO series "24/7" leading into the 2012 Winter Classic against the Philadelphia Flyers. But it didn't sound like Tortorella was going to pull any punches either.

"I know it is portrayed as always yelling and screaming, kicking and throwing things," he said. "It's not always that way. There is certainly honesty that is going to happen with the coach here. The coach is going to be fair also."

As for style of play (despite Gillis lamenting the trend toward players collapsing in front of their own net, a tactic Tortorella's Rangers were famous for), the new Canucks coach wasn't making any apologies for his defensive emphasis.

"That has taken on a life of its own that if you block shots you are a defensive coach," Tortorella said, "But look at the playoffs, watch the Final. Did you see what Chicago is doing? They are collapsing, they are blocking shots, but it does not hinder their offense, and that's why they are there. … It's great to say 'Let's score off the rush and have some great offensive flow.' It doesn't happen that way all the time within the game. You need to be able to score goals playing underneath the hash mark also."

Tortorella did say he will add penalty killing duties -- and with it, shot blocking -- to top-line twins and scoring leaders Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin.

"I can tell you right now they are going to kill penalties, and if they are going to kill penalties, they are going to block shots," he said. "Do I expect to turn them into [Rangers captain] Ryan Callahan? Absolutely not, but if you are going to play proper defense, that has to be part of the equation. I think they will welcome it because they want to be better."

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