TAMPA — Former Lightning coach John Tortorella, the amazing Johnny Torts, remains the wildest of wild cards. So there was general Lightning nervousness when Tortorella was first told of the celebration marking 10 years since the franchise's unforgettable 2004 Stanley Cup championship team. The Lightning picked the Vancouver game to make sure he'd be there.
As late as Sunday, with Tortorella's sputtering Canucks in Sunrise about to play the Panthers, 2004 alums wondered if Tortorella would make the reunion dinner Sunday night at a local restaurant. The Stanley Cup would be there. Would Torts?
The Canucks won Sunday. That was a break.
But I bet Tortorella would have made Sunday's dinner anyway.
And Monday night, defying oddsmakers, he left the Vancouver bench to join returning players and staff from the Cup team for a red carpet pregame ceremony. Tortorella pumped a fist a few times as the Forum crowd opened its yap to cheer him. This hasn't been his easiest season. It was a very nice moment. It meant something.
Monday morning, for one of the few times with media, Tortorella spoke at length about the Cup run.
“I'm not a big guy to get reminiscing, but I think I owe that team to speak on it,” he said. “It is the 10th year anniversary. You're locked in. That's never going to change.”
He owed them this.
And they owe him.
“We were proving to the hockey world who we were and John was leading the charge,” said Dave Andreychuk, the captain.
Torts loved the dinner Sunday — loved it. He stayed three hours.
“Because it's 10 years later, you see where guys are at,” he said. “We got to sit down and talk about things along the way as a group without anybody else around. … To me, I had the honor to watch athletes go through 60 plus days of every other day, all the swings of momentum, the injuries, what they had to do. I was able to watch that. The front row-center seat I had to watch how the athletes handled themselves, grinding through all that, that's most rewarding thing.”
This was no spectator. Tortorella was everywhere that Cup season, pushing his team, pulling everything out of players. Sometimes guys wanted to throw him through a wall. They ended up going through walls for each other, exactly what their coach had in mind. They know that now.
“Sometimes, when you're in that fight with one another, the conflict of a coach and a player, they won't realize what you're trying to do, until 10 years later maybe,” Tortorella said.
It's between the second and third games of the 2004 Eastern Conference finals. The Flyers have just scored six goals to beat the Lightning. Torts rips Flyers coach Kevin Hitchcock for yelling at Lightning defenseman Brad Lukowich during the game. Shut your yap. To this day, he insists it wasn't planned. No one buys that.
“I was happy it was coming my way,” Tortorella admitted. “Was it premeditated? No. I was mad. He was yelling at my players. As it turned out, it helped us for those couple of days, just to let the team be left alone and get ready for your next game.”
“There was no doubt that he was on our side during the (Cup) run,” Andreychuk said. “Regardless of what he said to us, that guy wanted, and got, the best out of all of us.”
It's the night before Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. The Lightning are meeting in a Calgary hotel. The Flames are at home, one win from Stanley. Torts gives the speech, maybe his all-timer: It's our time … It's us against the world … the pressure is on them … The Cup is here … Their whole country is watching them … They're supposed to win … The mayor of Canada is here …
The mayor of Canada?
Forget it. He was rolling.
“I didn't know it wasn't a mayor, that it was a prime minister,” Tortorella said, grinning.
After Marty St. Louis won Game 6, the Lightning bus rode between police barricades that lined either side of Calgary's planned Stanley Cup parade route. Johnny Torts loved it — loved it.
Two nights later, the Lightning won it all. And then John Tortorella was alone.
“The only thing I remember is I left the building probably at about 4 o'clock in the morning,” he said. “All my other coaches, everybody in the rink, was somewhere, upstairs, partying. My family had left. So I just got in my car and left, I went home. It was really weird for me. I just kind of walked out and said, 'Well, I guess that's it' and I just drove home.”
There was Torts on Monday on the red carpet. He wasn't alone. He never will be when it comes to 2004. He's locked in. That's never going to change.