TAMPA -- John Tortorella took time Monday to do something he rarely does, look back and reminisce.
The occasion is the 10-year reunion of the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2003-04 Stanley Cup team. The organization has gathered 14 former players from that team along with Tortorella, currently coach of the Vancouver Canucks, who was behind the bench for Tampa Bay, and they will be recognized before the game against Vancouver on Monday.
"I'm not a big guy to get reminiscent about all this stuff, but I think I owe that team to speak on it," Tortorella said. "It is the 10th-year anniversary. You're locked in with those guys and that will never change."
The players and Tortorella got together for dinner Sunday after the Canucks arrived from Sunrise, Fla., where they played the Florida Panthers earlier in the day.
"Sitting with them [Sunday] was really cool for me," Tortorella said. "I've never been involved in that. I was a little nervous entering the room at first, but then the night got flowing and the boys had a few beers and started telling stories. One thing that surprised me, I thought I knew what they were doing in the evening during the season when they were going out, but really I did not know. They told me some stories [Sunday] and I really did not know. I thought I had a good handle on it."
The gathering, and the outpouring of emotions that followed, was touching to Tortorella.
"Dave Andreychuk, captain of the team, and Tim Taylor, the assistant captain, met me at the door when I got there. It's special. It's hard to explain if you didn't go through it," Tortorella said. "It was probably one of the most rewarding times I have had in a number of years. I think almost even more rewarding than the Stanley Cup win celebration after the game because it's 10 years later, you see where guys are at. This hallway and locker room were filled with people that night; you couldn't even get to one another.
"[Sunday] as a group, without anyone else around, we talked about things along the way. It was a really interesting and a really nice night for me to get back with that group of guys. The greatest thing about that was not winning the Stanley Cup; it was the process. Going through those 60-plus days and four rounds and doing it."
More than the victories and the glory, it was the process that Tortorella wanted to discuss.
"You go through a process as an organization," he said. "A number of years that it took to get there to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. None of us knew we were going to win the Stanley Cup that year. I think some of the innocence helped us. It wasn't that pressure because we didn't have a clue what we were doing. We were just playing. But the most rewarding thing for me was watching each and every day how we reacted. There was a time when we were going every other day; you win one, lose the next one. I have such a true respect for the athletes and what they had to do. I'm watching. That was rewarding."
Along the way through the long playoff grind, there were some moments which have become part of the Tortorella legend. Like in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Philadelphia Flyers that featured Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock yelling at Lightning defenseman Brad Lukowich and then sending Donald Brashear out on the ice. Brashear barely cleared the bench before he punched Lukowich in the head.
After the game Tortorella famously told Hitchcock to "shut your yap."
That turned the focus of the series on Tortorella, which allowed the players to focus on the upcoming game.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that I was a genius with that," Tortorella said. "I was [angry] at what he [Hitchcock] was doing. But as it came about I was happy it was coming my way because I just needed the team to play and answer back the proper way. Was it premeditated? No. Are you kidding me? I was mad. He was yelling at my players; Lukowich got hurt after he sent someone out after him. But as it turned out it helped us. It doesn't win a series but it helped us for those couple of days to let the team get left alone and get ready for the next game."
And when the improbable run to the Cup was over and the Lightning defeated the Calgary Flames in Game 7 in Tampa, the end was somewhat anticlimactic.
"The only thing I remember was that I left the building around 4 a.m.," Tortorella said. "I knew I didn't have to see those guys or prepare anything the next day, which was a relief.
"All the other coaches, everybody was in the rink here, upstairs somewhere in one of the rooms partying. My family had left. I was the only one in the building and I didn't know what to do so I just got in my car and left. I went home. It was really weird for me. I walked out and I said, 'I guess that's it,' and I drove home. My coaches didn't tell me where they were going. They all gassed me and went upstairs and I just drove home by myself. It's true. I was a little [angry] the next day that I wasn't involved in the party upstairs. I didn't know where they all were."
There is no question that the experience changed Tortorella's life.
"I just go about my business. I try to keep it even," Tortorella said. "But where it changed me was in knowing how difficult it is to do. It's given me more opportunity. I'm sure someone said, 'Let's look at him,' with the Rangers and now Vancouver. I didn't win; we won. But people do think, 'Let's talk to him.' That happens."
What Tortorella said he never will forget about that magical run to the Stanley Cup is the respect he had for the players and what they accomplished.
"For me it wasn't the final game and winning it," he said. "For me it was that I had the honor to watch athletes go through 60-plus days of all the swings of momentum and the injuries and what they had to do. I was able to watch that. It is the hardest trophy to win in all sports. The front-row center seat I had was to watch how the athletes handled themselves and grind through that. That was the most rewarding."
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