Kinder, gentler Tortorella these days

Head Coach John Tortorella of the New York Head Coach John Tortorella of the New York Rangers. Photo Credit: Getty Images

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During a trip to Minnesota last month, the Rangers' team plane couldn't take off after a nasty ice storm, and players and coaches endured a slow, treacherous postgame ride from the airport to a hotel.

The chartered bus slid on the highway, dangerously close to the railing and an embankment. The tense passengers were silent as the driver tried to brake and pulled out of the skid. Suddenly, a voice rose from the dark.

"Way to go, bussie, stay within yourself . . . "

It was John Tortorella, motivating even away from the rink.

"He did a great job," Tortorella recalled. "We sent up some beers to his room afterward."

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In his second full season behind the Rangers' bench, the 52-year-old Boston native remains passionate, focused and devoted to building a competitive playoff team, as he did with Tampa Bay, a run that included a Stanley Cup championship in 2004.

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But unlike last season, when he often was abrasive and contentious, glimpses into his softer side and his guarded personal life have emerged.

A coach who has called confrontations with players valuable has been more encouraging, players say. And those who cover the team on a regular basis agree that a coach who repeatedly has expressed his distaste for the media in the past is making an effort to be more engaging and communicative.

"Since I played for him last time, I think he's mellowed a bit," said Ruslan Fedotenko, who played for Tortorella with Tampa Bay. "I remember when we were in the playoffs against Calgary in '04, sometimes after a late flight, he'd be preparing for the next game and end up sleeping in his office. I don't know if he would do that again, but it was the playoffs. He's still intense, and if he needs to give someone a kick in the butt, he will. You respect that. He cares about his job and has a lot of pride."

Writers and broadcasters notice the changes this season. Last year, questions about anything but the upcoming game were curtly and rapidly dismissed. "Things had to change. It wasn't working," said one person close to the organization who asked to remain anonymous. "He knew it and the front office knew it."

Undoubtedly, Tortorella has found a balance and comfort level in New York (although he maintains a home in Tampa). He agreed to co-host a television show on MSG, and, yes, winning helps. The resilient Rangers, playing without three or four of their top veterans for much of the early season, are 17-12-1.

Tortorella still bristles at some postgame queries, but on off-days - Mondays, for example - he often will discuss Sunday's NFL games and coaching decisions with reporters. On a recent morning, he recounted an emotional car ride while he cradled his bleeding dog - badly gashed after running into a jagged fence in the woods - in the back seat and his wife, Chris, sped to a veterinarian.

He even told the New York Post's Larry Brooks, with whom he has publicly sparred over the years, that an article about a goaltending decision was "well-written."

But Tortorella never completely relinquishes the needle: He finished the comment by adding: " . . . not that it happens all that often."

Whether this sea change will endure a long losing streak is unclear. Friends, however, say a loyal heart always beats beneath the on-camera persona.

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In July, Tortorella made daily visits to the bedside of Tony Castillo - the long-time head of security at the arena where the Lightning plays - who was recovering from a massive heart attack. "He told me to fight," Castillo told the St. Petersburg Times. "It meant the world to me."

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Tortorella's world now includes the media as well. He did not appear on a regular television or radio show in Tampa but said he enjoys taping MSG's "Behind the Bench," which features a segment on X's and O's. "I like it because it's my opinions and I don't have to answer questions from you guys," he joked. And he is ultra-conscious about limiting his flair for colorful adjectives.

When asked if a live gig wouldn't better showcase his spontaneous side, he grinned and said: "JR [Rangers vice president of public relations and player recruitment John Rosasco] won't let me."

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