NEW YORK – After Mike Rupp signed with the New York Rangers last summer, he tried to run something past coach John Tortorella. He and his wife had found a school for the kids and a place they liked, but it was in New Jersey – far from the training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., and Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.
"I called him just to say, 'Hey, this is the area I'm looking at. What are your thoughts on that?' " said Rupp, a former New Jersey Devil, starting to chuckle. "He just said, 'I don't give a expletive where you live. I don't care if you live in Indiana. You get to practice on time and you do your job, and you're going to love it here.' "
No BS, unless the profanity is peppering his speech. No wavering from his singular focus – winning. The man won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. He's halfway to another one now with the Rangers. And you know what? He doesn't give a damn what you think.
It's a remarkable story, really. Tortorella is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, which goes to the NHL's coach of the year based on the regular season. On the surface, he seems to have nothing in common with the other finalists.
The St. Louis Blues' Ken Hitchcock, another crusty old Cup winner, toned down his act to relate to today's players. The Ottawa Senators' Paul MacLean cleaned up the toxic environment left by former coach Cory Clouston, lightening the atmosphere.
Tortorella hasn't toned down or lightened up anything. Yet he has taken one of the youngest teams in the league and built an identity to match his – hard, scrappy, committed. As he likes to say, the Rangers defend their asses off. They are best known for blocking shots. They won the East in the regular season, and now they have won two seven-game playoff series and made their first conference final since 1997.
You have to dig deep to understand why, to discover that Torts has evolved, too.
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Henrik Lundqvist will never forget the first time Tortorella walked into the dressing room. Lundqvist had never experienced a midseason coaching change before, and on that February day in 2009 he knew he was about to experience a big one. The Rangers had gotten rid of Tom Renney, a teacher type, and brought in Tortorella, reputed to be a principal-with-a-paddle type.
"I heard a lot of things about Torts when he came in," said Lundqvist, the Rangers' star goaltender. "We had the first meeting, talked about certain things. 'This is the way we're going to do it.' I listened. I was excited and nervous at the same time."
How much of what Lundqvist heard was true?
"Most of it was true," Lundqvist said, laughing.
Most of it. Certainly the parts the public usually gets to see. It was refreshing when HBO's "24/7" series showed Tortorella interacting with Liam Traynor, a 10-year-old Rangers fan with cerebral palsy. Otherwise, he has given us little evidence of what friends insist he's really like away from the ice, that he melts around children, that he does quiet charity work, that way deep down in there somewhere is a good heart.
Tortorella often comes off as a jerk in the media. In 2012 alone, he has questioned the league's integrity after its showcase event, saying he wasn't sure if NBC got together with the referees to take the Winter Classic to overtime. He has told New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer to shut up, as the two sparred verbally after their teams sparred physically. He has attacked the Pittsburgh Penguins, calling Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin "their two whining stars" and the Pens "one of the most arrogant organizations in the league."
Whining? Arrogant? That was rich coming from him.
From that point, his press conferences deteriorated so badly that he didn't answer questions about anything. His favorite update became "no update." So reporters stopped asking questions and started timing their sessions – in seconds – to see how short they were, and he started blaming them for not asking questions.
Finally, someone asked if he just didn't like the media or if he had a strategy.
"What?" Tortorella shot back. "Are you being a wise ass?"
"No," the reporter responded. "I'm being sincere."
"I'm being sincere, too," Tortorella said. "I'm not going to give you much information. Some of you guys sit here and tell me I'm curt or whatever. I'm not going to have a staring contest. If you don't ask me a question, I'll just leave. So that's the way it is. I'm sorry. I'm not a guy that wants to converse about everything during the playoffs. I'm not."
Tortorella refused to play along with the Devils-Rangers rivalry stuff, even though the teams are meeting in the conference final for the first time since 1994, the New York Knicks have been knocked out of the NBA playoffs and hockey has the spotlight in the area for the first time in ages. The New York Post called him a "party-pooper."
Listen to Tortorella's news conference after Monday's morning skate. You don't need the questions, just the answers: "We're fine." "We're fine." "No, none." "It's a bunch of crap." "We don't spend too much time on the other team. We're worried about our team." "I just feel that way." That's it. Way to promote the game.
Maybe there is a method to his madness – deflecting attention from his players, keeping secrets from opponents, giving the media no more molehills out of which they can make mountains.
Maybe he doesn't want to be fined anymore, after taking $20,000 and $30,000 hits from the league for some of his earlier comments. Maybe he doesn't want to suffer fools who ask stupid questions. (Once he was asked about the importance of the first 10 minutes. His classic reply: "They're as important as the last 50.") Maybe if you come off as a jerk, you're just a jerk.
Or maybe this is just his schtick. It might not play well in Peoria, but this is the big leagues and the Big Apple. Bold survives in the concrete jungle. Blunt translates in a tabloid town. Torts told Rupp: "Do your job, and you're going to love it here." It's like Sinatra sang in "New York, New York:” If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere. It's up to you.
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Tortorella's style has worked with the team because he has the right players, stays consistent and, yes, shows another side of himself behind closed doors.
"Some people can't handle it, and some people just get used to it," said Rangers winger Ruslan Fedotenko, who won a Cup under Tortorella with Tampa Bay. "And some people just thrive on that."
The Rangers have people who thrive on that.
They have some highly paid superstars, like Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, but both chose to play for Tortorella. Richards played for him in Tampa Bay and not only won a Cup, but the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player. Though Gaborik needs coaxing at times, he owns up to it when he doesn't perform.
They have some first-round picks, like defensemen Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto, but few, if any, pampered prima donnas who need their egos soothed. Their leaders are homegrown gritty guys – like captain Ryan Callahan, a fourth-round pick who throws his body all over the ice, and defenseman Dan Girardi, an undrafted free agent who made it on guts.
"I'm not sure that every player in the league can play for him," Rupp said. "But I'm saying that in a good way, because quite frankly if you can't, this team probably doesn't want you. He wants guys who are going to be honest in the way that they play. He wants guys that are going to be making sacrifices in their game for the better of the team. If you're not willing to do that, it doesn't matter if you're a superstar or an extra. You're not going to play."
Every player learned that his first day – whether he was in that first meeting, like Lundqvist was, or whether he came later. The Rangers acquired big John Scott from the Chicago Blackhawks before the trade deadline. Scott said Tortorella wasted no time on pleasantries. Tortorella just told the 6-foot-8, 270-pounder he was out of shape and slow.
Tortorella reinforces it every day, holding back nothing in team video sessions. He demands that players block shots. If he sees the slightest hesitation, if he sees one foot coming off the ice, if he sees the dreaded flamingo pose, he will flame you in front of all your peers.
But here's the thing: It's the same for everybody, and it's black and white. As Rupp said: "We respect that. We don't get the runaround." Other coaches might play favorites or leave you guessing. Not Torts.
"If he barks at you, it's because you probably did a [lousy] job in the game," Fedotenko said. "It's bottom line. It's not personal. It's not nothing. If you're doing a good job, he never will bark at you."
And here is where he has evolved: It's not just that he will never bark at you if you're doing a good job. It's that he will praise you if you're doing a good job, too.
It calls to mind something Hitchcock said he had learned about coaching today's young players: "I think this age of players wants the information. They want it now, but you better make sure it's right. So they don't mind getting critiqued and they don't mind getting criticized, but they also want to know how to fix it."
Fedotenko said Tortorella hasn't exactly mellowed since his Tampa Bay days – "not necessarily, no" – but now he will show players more than what not to do. He will show them what to do. To the stick he has added the carrot.
"He's more focused on the good things, especially with so many young players and everything else," Fedotenko said. "I feel like he's doing a good job of that. … When they have a good play and everything else, he definitely will come out and show it. I think that's definitely I would say improvement from before."
Tortorella has outlined exactly what he expects, and he has a roster of players who are willing to do it. Best of all, the players end up not wanting to do it for him, but wanting to do it for each other.
"When I see Ryan Callahan block shots the way that he blocks shots, it makes me want to block a shot like that," Rupp said. "When the puck goes out to the point, I look at it as an opportunity to do something for the team. …
"You don’t have to be liked all the time, but you have to be respected. When you respect your coach, you want to play for him. I always compare it to that high-school football mentality, where you want to go through a wall for your coach and your team. That's not always the case in this league. When you have it, it's pretty special, and we have that here."
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In the end, the Rangers are united a little like players were under legend Scotty Bowman, whose ways were uniquely challenging and much more mysterious than Tortorella's. The guys went through the same stuff together, and when they won – really, because they won – well, all that stuff was worth it. That was just Scotty being Scotty. This is just Torts being Torts. Someday they’ll laugh about it.
Actually, they laugh about it already.
"The way that he says things, it's funny," Rupp said, smiling but serious. "It makes you laugh. He's to the point. But he just cares about winning. So it's one of those things. The things you hear, you've just got to keep in the back of your head, like, 'He wants to win.' Some of the things you can laugh about and make jokes about, and we do in the room. But he's business. That's one of the great things about him."
It's the greatest thing about him, if you've got what it takes to be a New York Ranger.
"He's a winning coach, and he's a proven coach," Fedotenko said. "I feel like if that's his style, I'm excited to play for him, because we have a chance to win."