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Tortorella celebrates Lightning's Stanley Cup — with his players

TAMPA

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Early on the morning of June 8, 2004, a few hours after his Lightning won the Stanley Cup, coach John Tortorella was in his office at the then-St. Pete Times Forum.

It was 4 a.m. His wife and kids had gone home. The locker room still smelled of champagne, but it had long been deserted. Tortorella had no idea where his coaching staff or players went. At one of the happiest moments of his life, he was all alone.

"It was really weird for me," Tortorella said. "I walked out and said, 'Well, I guess that's it.' And I just drove home by myself."

Really?

"It's true," Tortorella said.

Monday, for the first time since the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, Tortorella spoke at length about that night, that season and that special team as the franchise celebrated the 10th anniversary of its only championship.

"I'm not a big guy to get reminiscent about all this," Tortorella said, "but I think I owe that team to speak."

You hoped he would talk, but with Torts, you're never quite sure what you're going to get. He can be cranky at times and downright rude at others. His focus is always looking forward and never beyond the next game. His current team, the Canucks, is struggling. It wouldn't have been surprising if Tortorella, politely or otherwise, declined any invitation to get all warm and fuzzy about the good old days.

But Monday was different.

He told stories. He smiled. He laughed. He showed real appreciation for the moment. Yes, Monday morning was different.

Because of Sunday night.

He spent Sunday evening with more than a half-dozen players from that Cup-winning team, including captain Dave Andreychuk, Freddy Modin, Tim Taylor and Pavel Kubina.

Tortorella, 55, didn't know what to expect. He didn't know if the players would hug him or slug him. He guided them to a championship but had run-ins with nearly every one of them back in the day. He hadn't spoken to many of them in years.

"I was a little nervous going in there," Tortorella said.

They ate. They drank. They remembered.

"It was probably one of the most rewarding times I've had in a number of years," Tortorella said. "I think almost more rewarding than the Stanley Cup celebration after the game. Because it's 10 years later. You see where guys are at."

On Sunday night, it wasn't a coach and his former players, but a group of men linked forever by a championship. Forgotten were the days of Camp Torturella, when he skated players so hard they vomited. Instead of hating Tortorella for all the times he screamed at them on the bench or embarrassed them in team meetings, they thanked him for the lessons he taught them.

Along the way, he found out a few things he didn't know, such as how his players used to go out when he thought they were tucked in their beds.

"I did not know, and I thought I had a good handle on it," Tortorella said, smiling.

Tortorella said that spring of 2004 was like "living under a big boulder." He remembers feeling numb for much of it. Each day brought a new set of emotions. Excitement, nervousness, desperation.

"We didn't have a clue of what we were doing," Tortorella said. "We were just playing. But the most rewarding thing for me was watching each and every day and how we reacted. There was a time when we were going every other day. We'd win one, lose the next one, win one. And I just watched how the athletes handled themselves. I just have such a true respect for the athletes and what they have to do. That was rewarding."

The 2004 Cup run was full of special moments. But the most pivotal and memorable might have been Tortorella's infamous "Shut Your Yap" speech directed at Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock — whom he accused of yelling at Lightning players — before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final. Tortorella's rant made everyone forget the Lightning had just been crushed in Game 2.

"I'm not going to sit here and say I was a genius with that because I was (ticked) over what (Hitchcock) was doing," Tortorella said. "I was happy (the heat) was coming my way because I just wanted my team to play. But was it premeditated? No. Are you kidding me? I was mad."

Don't buy that for a second. Of course it was planned. And it worked. The Lightning won Game 3, went on to win the series and then won the Cup.

It was Tortorella's finest hour.

Since then, so much has happened.

Nikolai Khabibulin left for free agency. Brad Richards was traded. Vinny Lecavalier was let go last summer. One by one, they all departed. Marty St. Louis, traded March 5, was the last remaining player from the Cup team.

Tortorella was fired in 2008 and has gone on to coach the Rangers and, now, the Canucks. His kids have grown up. His son is an Army Ranger who spent time in Afghanistan. His daughter is a school teacher in Manhattan.

So much has happened, but Tortorella will never forget what happened 10 years ago.

"Special," he said. "If you didn't go through it, it's hard to explain."

On Monday night, right before the Lightning-Canucks game, Tortorella had a chance to remember and relive it all again.

This time, he did it in front of 19,000 people who showed their appreciation with a rousing ovation as he pumped his fist in the air. This time, he did it while surrounded by former players.

This time, Tortorella celebrated, and he wasn't all alone.

Tortorella celebrates Lightning's Stanley Cup — with his players 03/17/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2014 11:01pm]
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