The Days and Nights of Johnny Torts

Updated: September 29, 2005, 5:43 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine
Pray for Johnny Torts. Pray for this irritable, irascible man who cannot unwind. Pray for him even though he has a Stanley Cup and a growing reputation as one of America's best coaches. Pray for a man made famous by the phrase "Shut yer yap!" A man who once told a college teammate more or less the same thing, that teammate being his little brother.

Pray for Johnny Torts because one of his best Lightning players describes him thus: "Very -- how would I describe it? -- he's got a temper. But a different word from that. You know, the Italian guys, when they snap?" Pray for him because even a 16-month vacation could not soothe him. He tried to relax, tried to detach. He tried gardening. He tried Pilates. "My wife didn't want me around," he says. (Feel free to pray for his wife, too.)

John Tortorella spent the long NHL off-season preparing for the next NHL on-season. He'd arrive at the dark, iceless arena in downtown Tampa by dawn, work out, then watch film until his eyes were bloodshot. He broke down hours of game tape from the 2003-04 season, finding the perfect play to illustrate every single scheme and strategy he wanted his team to learn when players returned. After months of this, he had his opus -- Hockey the Torts Way -- to hand out to players. Then he chucked the whole thing and started over. After a few more months, he had a better version. Trashed that too, and started over again. Then the lockout ended, and colleagues say -- whisper, really -- that this was the moment when Johnny Torts really got impatient . So if the man was intense before, what now? How will he be after so many months of frustrated idling? How can his perpetual inner rumble not fuse with the pressure to repeat and result in a 10-million-volt Lightning meltdown? He's already sent a letter to his players and he pledges to "reteach" the game. Yikes. "Part of my concern," says Bolts captain Dave Andreychuk, "is that he has to realize we need to just go out and play." Tortorella -- like the NHL itself these days -- seems too combustible, too tightly wound to have any real chance of lasting greatness, let alone likability. But friends of the coach, and fans of the sport, know better. The reason to pray for Johnny Torts this season is that American hockey needs this tortured soul as much as it needs head coach Wayne Gretzky.

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.