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May 21, 2012
John Tortorella has molded the Rangers in his own driven and confrontational image, and in the process led them to their first conference final in 15 years
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May 21, 2012

A Postseason On The Brink

John Tortorella has molded the Rangers in his own driven and confrontational image, and in the process led them to their first conference final in 15 years

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If the Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, then the playoff postgame press conferences of New York Rangers coach John Tortorella are the most, uh, unpredictable. Like the Derby, wagering is encouraged—"There's an over-under on how long Torts will go," Flames general manager Jay Feaster says—and hockey-loving networks on both sides of the border have superimposed a stopwatch on the screen as if Tortorella were ticking off blazing splits instead of simply being ticked off.

The question-and-answer sessions are hockey's version of Kabuki theater, elaborately stylized and weirdly dramatic. Often bristling, his most natural postgame pose, Tortorella sits or stands in front of an NHL-logoed backdrop. A team public relations handler invites questions. As a rule the coach is loath to discuss his lineup, individual players, injuries or the opponent, so the range of topics is narrow. (In The Wall Street Journal last week, writer Jason Gay suggested 49 questions Tortorella would answer. Number 13: Is Sally Draper going to turn out O.K.?) Although Tortorella lasted just a fraction longer than 1:22 following a 2--1 Game 6 loss to the Capitals in Washington on May 9, the press conference was representative of the genre.

Tortorella set his jaw. He rolled his eyes. He followed a brusque reply to an anodyne question about a timeout by cradling his head in his hand like a third-grade teacher frustrated by a particularly dull student.

That four-minute power play that you guys had....

"It sucked." (In the second period, New York managed three shots during a Washington double minor.)

Just what did that do for momentum?

"It kills ya. It sucked."

In the perfect, hermetically sealed universe of the world's surliest hockey coach, every Game 7 would be played in Madison Square Garden. There would be no fans in the arena. No media. No owners. Maybe Tortorella could even do without referees (because Game 7s essentially referee themselves). There would be two valiant teams, competing for a chance to advance. That's it. The back-of-the-hall people could watch if they chose—cleaning staff, security guards—because these are Tortorella's folks. He knows their names. When Tony Castillo, head of security at the St. Pete Times Forum, had a heart attack in June 2010, Tortorella, who won a Stanley Cup in 2004 as the Lightning coach, often visited him in the hospital. He also has a renowned soft spot for children. A few weeks before a 14-year-old named Jacob Reeves died of bone cancer in 2005, Tortorella took the Cup to the family home in Brooksville, Fla., and spent six hours with the boy. "I wondered what Jacob was thinking about all day, knowing he was dying," says his mother, Catherine Reeves. "This allowed him to think about other things that day. He was so happy and excited. John called the day of his memorial service and four or five days later.... One time John said to us, 'I'm a coach. That's why I'm so rough. I'm not supposed to be liked.' There's a rough exterior, but he is so not like that."

There are scores of other stories about Tortorella's good works, but he doesn't want you to know them any more than he wants you to know about center Brandon Dubinsky's injured right foot. This is none of your business.

Tortorella loves mankind. People, on the other hand....

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