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Torts' reputation blown out of proportion, family says

by Chuck Gormley
He's been called the Sean Avery of NHL coaches, "Dirty Harry" and the antithesis of Tom Renney.

He once told Ken Hitchcock to shut his yap and a veteran New York reporter to do the same.

He even punched a heckling fan between periods of an AHL playoff game and lives by the credo, "Safe is Death."

John Tortorella, the truth-talking, stick-banging son of a Boston electrician, has brought his irreverent act to Broadway, where his Rangers will meet the Boston Bruins Sunday afternoon (12:30 p.m. ET) on the NBC Game of the Week from Madison Square Garden).

"I just read a story today that said John has a 'bombastic personality,'" his 76-year-old mother, Rita Tortorella, said from her home in Sarasota, Fla. "I don't like that word 'bombastic' and I don't see it."

Mrs. Tortorella isn't claiming her 50-year-old son is ripe for canonization, but she says his depiction as a hot-headed tyrant is a bit overblown.

"Don't get me wrong," Mrs. Tortorella said. "Growing up, John knew how to take care of himself. He was very self-sufficient. But don't ever cross him or his brothers or his sister."

Born in Boston and raised in nearby Concord with his three brothers, Bill, Bob and Jim, and sister, Carol, Tortorella learned most of his life lessons on the frozen ponds and schoolyards that surrounded his home.

"Whether it was football or pond hockey or baseball, you either battled or you got run over," recalled Jim Tortorella, now 49 and in his 14th season as head coach of the Colby College men's ice hockey team in Waterville, Maine. "If you wanted to play, you had to play hard."

As the youngest of three boys, Jim Tortorella remembers his older brothers forcing him to play goalie in hockey, catcher in baseball and designating him as a tackling dummy in football. He played second base and John played shortstop when the two attended Concord Carlisle Regional High School.

"He'd play with stitches in his knees, in his elbows, in his face. I think he played better hurt than he played healthy," Jim Tortorella said. "He'd never give up under any circumstance because if you did, you'd get eaten up by the guys in the neighborhood. You had to be tough to survive."

Which brings us to Tortorella's current working address. Unlike Tampa Bay, where Tortorella's success with the Lightning was fleeting, New York is a hockey mecca with passionate, knowledgeable fans that have filled Madison Square Garden for decades.

The biggest question as Tortorella embarks on his second NHL head-coaching job is whether his hard-edged, often irreverent style, will work in glitzy Manhattan.

His younger brother is convinced it can, if given time.

"John's straightforward and he's not going to sugar-coat anything, whether he's talking with the New York Post or a player who's struggling, and I think that's refreshing," Jim Tortorella said. "He's also thick-skinned and he doesn't really care what the media says, or what the fans are thinking. He cares about the guys who play for him and that's it."

Tortorella's blunt criticism of Lighting center Vincent Lecavalier made headlines in Tampa and nearly led to Lecavalier requesting a trade. But even after having his captaincy stripped from him, Lecavalier now credits Tortorella for instilling in him the value of team before self.

It is what he does best, Jim Tortorella says.

"The ones who buy in and respect what he's trying to do are the ones who will thrive," the younger Tortorella said. "People think that because he's gruff and direct that it's a dictatorship.

"Let's face it. Coaching is egotistical and some become narcissistic because they think it's all about them. With Johnny it's not about him. It's about getting every player to get the best out of himself for the good of the team."

That is not to say Tortorella has not made some mistakes along the way. Early in his seven-year tenure with the Lightning, Tortorella criticized defenseman Pavel Kubina for taking a penalty that led to a power-play goal. When assistant coach Craig Ramsay pointed out between periods that Kubina was only coming to the defense of goaltender Nikolai Khabiubulin, Tortorella apologized to Kubina in front of his teammates.

As an assistant coach in Phoenix, Tortorella once reprimanded defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky for using his cell phone on the team bus after a loss. But when he learned Tverdovsky could only reach his parents in Russia at that time of night, he apologized.

"If he knows he's wrong, he'll say he's sorry," Mrs. Tortorella said. "But he's pretty sure he's right most of the time."

Like when Tortorella made it clear on his first day on the job that no one – including players, management and members of the media – is allowed to stand on the Rangers' logo on the floor of the team's dressing room.

He issued the same rule in Tampa, where players routinely asked visiting media members to please move themselves off the Lightning logo.

Jim Tortorella says there is a method to his brother's perceived madness; a purpose to his perceived obsessive behavior.

"There are coaches I recruit against who say, 'How is not walking on a logo going to win you games?' Or, 'How does lining up numerically on the ice going to make you a better team?'

"It's the culture of respect you're developing. It's creating pride in the logo you wear and your willingness to do anything to defend it. Telling someone making $45 million to walk around a logo might sound stupid. But once you set that as a ground rule and a new kid steps on it and you see a teammate tell him, 'We don't do that here,' you start to understand its value.
"If he knows he's wrong, he'll say he's sorry. But he's pretty sure he's right most of the time." -- Rita Tortorella, mother of Rangers coach John Tortorella
"I tell my players not to spit on the bench. If they want to spit on the ice, fine. But they don't spit on the floors in their house, so don't spit on their bench. It transcends onto the ice. If you respect your teammates, you're going to back check your butt off to help him."

Time will tell if Tortorella's hard-nosed approach in New York will fly with the fans, media and, more importantly, the players he inherited from Tom Renney and Glen Sather. Markus Naslund, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Wade Redden are about to find out. And unless they have something to hide, Jim Tortorella said they have nothing to fear.
"You don't coach to have players like you. You coach to have players respect you," he said. "With Johnny, you're more than just a hockey player. It's human nature that if you feel cared for, you give it back in return. People don't understand Johnny has a side to him that is very fair and he cares deeply for his players.

"But one thing is for sure. He is not going to placate to the superstar because when it comes right down to it, players resent that. He will treat Markus Naslund and Chris Drury and Scott Gomez the same way he treats his fourth-line players."

It took Tortorella three full seasons behind the bench in Tampa before he turned the Lightning into Stanley Cup champions. His younger brother believes it will take some time, and perhaps some personnel changes, before the Rangers are true contenders.

"It's not going to happen in 21 games," Jim Tortorella said. "They're fragile right now and Johnny knows it. But he'll find out soon which players are in and which ones are out.

"Our society tends to place blame on everybody else, but John won't let that happen. When the players realize they can't blame John Tortorella, they'll realize it's time to look in the mirror, get their butts in gear and start playing."

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