In a much-publicized move last year when the Lightning were struggling, head coach John Tortorella held a "fun" practice that included players using “opposite-handed” sticks and playing with tennis balls on the ice instead of pucks. It ended up being the turning point in a season that was headed in the wrong direction. Considering the team’s recent fortunes it would’ve been easy for Tortorella to be tough on the team at today’s practice at the St. Pete Times Forum, but instead he chose to have another play day.
With the squad split into two teams, the players were once again forced to use opposite-handed sticks while they flailed away at tennis balls wrapped in white and black tape. As many as four balls were on the ice at any given time during the four-on-four scrimmage, with white balls counting for one point and black counting for two. The goalies were forced to play without sticks.
If you ever want to see some of the top pro athletes in the world turn into kids on their backyard rink, tennis balls instead of pucks is the way to go. Vaclav Prospal whiffed twice in a row on a stationary ball as he tried to shoot right-handed, and Marty St. Louis resorted to playing with one hand on his stick instead of trying to shoot as a righty. As always the competitive nature kicked in, and once Tortorella allowed the players to go back to their own sticks the scoring picked up. Of course, as always seems to be the case, the game ended tied and a shootout was needed to decide it.
The winners? Every player on the ice, because smiles and laughing could be seen and heard for the first time in awhile.
“We’ve kicked them, we’ve taped them to death, we’ve tried a lot of different things in this funk here,” Tortorella said. “I think the most important thing is to allow them to relax and let the game come to them. We needed to let them enjoy themselves for a few minutes.
“They’re not dogs. I know these players care, and they’re miserable right now.”
Not able to participate in the fun were Andreas Karlsson (body maintenance) and Craig MacDonald, who was at the dentist having some more repairs done to his teeth. Also absent was goaltender Marc Denis. The Lightning confirmed that Denis was placed on waivers at noon today, and no further comment will be available until tomorrow.