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Posted: Thursday February 26, 2009 2:16PM; Updated: Friday February 27, 2009 8:03AM
Jim Kelley Jim Kelley >
INSIDE THE NHL

Tortorella won't suffer Avery gladly

Story Highlights

John Tortorella's tough team-first approach will keep Sean Avery on a tight leash

During his long NHL career, Tortorella's always gotten the most out of players

Tortorella realizes Avery can be useful in adding muscle to an undersized offense

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John Tortorella is demanding nothing less than total commitment, all-out effort and respect from his players.
Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images
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New York Rangers General Manager Glen Sather said this week that new coach John Tortorella will "Over time learn to love (Sean Avery) the way I have."

Don't hold your breath.

While it's been reported that Tortorella, as a condition of employment prior to being hired, agreed to accept the prodigal pest's comeback effort whenever it happens (and that's likely to be within days), don't for a moment think the new head coach will accept it on anything but his terms.

Tortorella doesn't suffer fools lightly. In fact, he doesn't put up with them at all. He's a team-first kind of guy and anyone who puts himself above the team doesn't fit in the Tortorella scheme of things.

You can be assured that the first time Avery missteps -- in any fashion on or off the ice -- Tortorella will officially serve his first and likely last warning. That said, however, Tortorella is no one's fool. He knows he needs a player of Avery's tool set (big, reasonably-skilled and willing to stand up for teammates, especially the smallish ones who populate New York's first two lines). He knows Sather is going out on a limb that Avery has sawed off in several NHL stops, and that his new boss isn't going to want to look like a fool should the experiment go awry in the limited time the Rangers have to secure a playoff berth.

Tortorella also knows that, if handled properly and made to feel a part of the team, Avery can be a player he can not only use, but actually lean on in an effort to instill more sense of pride, confidence and accomplishment in a squad that is lacking in all of those hockey-crucial areas.

Most people, especially in media, don't quite get the Tortorella mindset. They get that he's fiery and demanding and can turn on players and media so quickly they'll think he's Mike Keenan circa the 1980s. But what they miss is the fact that in every stop of his now long and mostly successful NHL career, Tortorella has usually managed to create a bond with his charges. They come to realize that though he's tough, he's also caring. He puts winning first and demands that his players do everything possible to create a successful club, but he also helps them.

I saw this first-hand when Tortorella was a young assistant coach in Buffalo under Rick Dudley. I saw it again when he teamed with associate coach Craig Ramsay to build a Stanley Cup-winner in Tampa Bay. Tortorella insisted on everything each of player had to give, often asking for more than an individual thought he was capable of giving. He also made it clear that he was willing to do anything and everything necessary to make each player reach what would seem to be a simple goal: bring everything to every game and deliver it every shift.

Sounds easy, but it's about as difficult as getting one's name on the Stanley Cup.

Tortorella always made that commitment to players and expected they'd respond in kind. "I don't ask people to do more than they are capable of doing," he once told me, "but a lot of guys, especially young guys, they don't know how far they can drive themselves because they've never really had to do it.

"Winning is hard. Winning the Cup, for a lot of guys, it's the hardest thing they may ever do, but ask any of those guys with the Lightning when we won. They know how they did it, what the cost was and maybe they surprised themselves in what it took to get there, but those guys played for each other. They gave everything they had for each other. It may have taken awhile to get to the point where they believed they could do it, but once they turned that corner, they did it."

Tortorella's success with that Tampa team was hard-won. He drove Vinny Lecavalier to distraction in the early days of his career and Tortorella will admit that he may have pushed a little too hard, but it wasn't because he wanted to be mean. He saw what Lecavalier could be even before the player saw it in himself. In the end, all the pushing and prodding and in-your-face assaults were not just accepted by Lecavalier, he fed off them. He became a better player and demanded that his teammates do the same.

That's the essence of Tortorella's team-building and, in the case of Lecavalier, captain-building. Once you get a player to believe in himself and a team to believe in itself and play for each other, well, the heavy lifting is done. From that point out, the coach needs only to run the bench, prepare the game plans and let the team take care of itself.

During Tortorella's Tampa years, you could see him in everything the Lightning did. When they installed a dressing room carpet with the team logo in the center, they made a point of never walking across it or letting anyone else. They were strong on the old-school traditions like never letting a sweater touch the floor. It was all about respect -- for each other, for the bonds that tied them. Sure they played with signs and slogans, the most notable being "Safe is Death", but those were just visual reminders of what they were at the core.

Tortorella knows he has but 20-some games to establish that kind of mindset in New York. He also knows that Avery could easily come in and tear it all apart before it ever gets to a bonding point. But don't for a moment believe that Avery will have the upper hand in that room.

Avery may be Sather's guy, but Tortorella controls his destiny. The coach may not like him -- and his on-the-record remarks made as a TV analyst in Canada make that abundantly clear -- but that doesn't mean he isn't willing to accept the challenge of having him on the bench.

In the end, Avery will bend to Tortorella's will or he won't be a Ranger.

And it will be Sather, eventually, who will learn to love that.

 
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