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Laying down Torts’ law

by Daniel Fung / Vancouver Canucks
It may be just over a week since John Tortorella began his gig as the new head coach of the Canucks in earnest, but the attitude adjustment on the team is already apparent.

The 55-year-old Boston-native, who is known as much for his fiery persona as he is for his past successes in the NHL, has garnered a reputation over the years for being tough on his players and “tough” has certainly been a buzz word through the opening few days of the 2013 Training Camp.

“Definitely a lot more yelling from him, but it’s positive right now,” said Canucks’ forward Chris Higgins, comparing and contrasting the styles between Tortorella and former head coach Alain Vigneault.

Tortorella’s previous teams – namely the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers – never had the reputation for being the most stylish teams or the most entertaining teams. With the exception of perhaps the 2004 Lightning squad that won the Stanley Cup, it’s tough to say if any of his former teams were in the conversation of being considered the best either.

But the one thing that Torts’ teams were always known for were being tough to play against each and every night. They might not manage to win on every occasion, but if you were going to beat one of Torts’ teams, you’d have to pay a price doing so.

It’s that very same team toughness that the Canucks bench boss has been trying to ingrain into his new club even in the early stages of training camp.

It began on Thursday when the team’s opening day of training camp involved challenging skating drills without a puck to be seen, not to mention a two-mile run that was designed to be completed in under 12 minutes.

The pace hasn’t slowed down since.

“I’ve been to two training camps before this and the pace is definitely a little bit higher this year,” says netminder Eddie Lack. “It’s been a couple of tough days here for sure, but I think that once we get over this we’re going to be a lot better from it.”

Anytime a team undergoes a coaching change, there is always incentive among the players to want to make a good first impression. But that desire seems to be even more intense in this year’s camp and it applies not only for those players sitting on the bubble as far as a roster spot is concerned, but even among the veterans who are assured of their spot on opening night.

Higgins would be one of those veteran players who knows, barring the unforeseen, he’ll be in the opening night line-up. He’s also more familiar than anyone else on the team with Tortorella having played under him with the Rangers for a good part of the 2009-10 season.

But even though his new coach knows just what he’s capable of, even Higgins admits there’s pressure to demonstrate that he, just like everyone else at Canucks camp, is buying into Torts’ vision.

“He knows everyone’s hurting right now and we’re getting a little tight and everything like that but just wants us to push through it and show you’re committed to being on the team,” Higgins added.

On the flip side, Tortorella knows more about Higgins at this moment than he does any other member of the Canucks roster and he’s not shy to point out all the things he likes about the winger he coached for 55 games in New York.

“I like the little thing he does – his strength on the walls, his ability to understand when to protect the puck and his willingness to do it,” said Tortorella. “He did them for us [with the Rangers] and he forechecked well and he was a good penalty killer.”

Tortorella may have been talking specifically about Higgins, but he might as well be describing what it is he expects out of every player under his watch – players who are willing to do all those little things that lead to success and not just rely on skill and ability alone to carry them to victory.

As much success the Canucks have enjoyed under the previous regime – which includes a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, two Presidents’ Trophy victories and six division titles – there was a sense, particularly over the last couple of seasons, that they had become a team that was no longer tough to play against.

They were talented and skilled and could beat any team in the league on any given night, but that toughness and willingness to do whatever it took to win just didn’t seem to be present.

That’s precisely what Tortorella plans to change for a team that has proven they have the ingredients to be successful, but hasn’t always utilized their abilities to their potential.

“He just wants your commitment there every day, every drill,” said Higgins. “I think guys know that and they’re responding to it.”

If all goes according to plan for Torts, they’ll be responding just as well come May and June as they are right now.

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