When the Vancouver Canucks hired John Tortorella as their head coach on June 25, 2013 it was somewhat surprising to many in the hockey world and not just because of the irony that he was replacing the coach that only ten days earlier had replaced him as head coach of the New York Rangers, Alain Vigneault. But what really had NHL management, coaches, scouts and players wondering what was going on in Vancouver was why general manager Mike Gillis would hire a coach like Tortorella whose style didn’t exactly fit the way Gillis wanted his teams to play and had constructed his teams to play? Some wondered if it was Gillis who actually made the surprising hire of Tortorella. Two different NHL executives in two separate conversations even said to this scribe at the time:
“No way that was Mike. That has ownership written all over it.”
That was a common belief throughout the league and just a few weeks ago, an NHL scout told “Murph’s Musings” that while he “liked” Tortorella as a coach, he just didn’t think he was the right fit for the roster as currently constructed and questioned whether the players and the embattled coach could ever “mesh”.
Based on a forthcoming and blunt interview Gillis had with the Team 1040 in Vancouver Thursday, these theories could very well be true and Gillis apparently feels the same way as his colleague. With his team all but out of playoff contention after a frustrating and tumultous season — that included Tortorella getting slapped with a 15-day suspension for going after Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley in the runway to the Flames dressing room at G.M. Place following a brawl-filled first period between the two teams on January 18 — the normally reserved Gillis unloaded and even questioned whether his own job was safe.
“David, I’m not sure if I’ll be back,” Gillis told “The Bro Jake Show” co-host David Pratt when asked about the status of Tortorella.
But that was just the beginning of what will surely go down as franchise altering rant from the GM who only three seasons ago had a team that came within one game of the organization’s first Stanley Cup.
“I’m tired of chasing a moving target,” Gillis continued. “We’re going to get back to the fundamentals and principles that I believe in, and that’s how we’re going to play. If people don’t want to comply … we did this six years ago. We made hard choices. Those hard choices are going to come again if we don’t see people get on the same page.”
Gillis’ reference to the way Vigneault (who before coaching the Canucks and even during his first season was a defensive-minded coach) adapted was not likely just a shot across the bow at Tortorella for not doing the same thing but at ownership as well for bringing in a coach who went against all that Gillis had tried to build in the last six years. Let’s not forget either how Tortorella earlier in the season publicly suggested that instead of him adapting to Gillis’ plan, it was time for his boss to adapt to him.
“We need to change the complexion of our hockey club,” Tortorella said after a 2-0 loss to the Red Wings on Feb. 3. “Either with different play or different people. And we’re gonna keep on banging away and trying to get better but … I tell ya … it worries me, it really worries me and I’ll leave it at that.”
One can only wonder what Gillis was thinking when he heard or read that. Maybe that Tortorella had to feel pretty safe in the eyes of ownership if he can basically publicly question the job Gillis was doing? Well besides the team not getting any better, no one is really sure what may have happened to suddenly cause Gillis to publicly fire back but that’s exactly what he was doing Thursday.
“You know, John’s an accomplished coach,” Gillis said. “Six years ago everyone thought Alain Vigneault couldn’t change from a defensive style coach to an offensive style coach. If given the resources and if the players are committed to it, I think any coach can coach the team that he has. Having said that, our problems are far-reaching and they will be addressed and if people don’t want to get on side with how I view this team and how it’s supposed to play, then they won’t be here, just like six years ago.”
“Players have severely under-performed. Our team has under-performed,” Gillis continued. “Our problems are far-reaching, and they will be addressed. If people don’t want to get onside with how I view this team and how it is supposed to play, then they won’t be here.”
Yes Gillis put the players on notice there but he also questioned Tortorella’s ability to adapt just as Vigneault had and in effect reiterated what he likely tried to convey to ownership if as believed they pressured him to hire Tortorella and form this marriage doomed from the start. The guess here is that Gillis recently met with ownership and they couldn’t reassure him if he would be retained either. So Gillis figured, ‘what the heck! I may as well take my shots now’ because either way he gets paid for the four seasons remaining on his contract unless he takes another GM job and if he stays then he will get the last laugh on Tortorella because there is no way they ever work together like the ‘Green Men’ do on opposing players in the sin bin. Maybe Gillis didn’t construct the team ownership wanted but if that was the case, they should’ve fired him as well last summer and brought in a “yes” man who would do what they wanted. Now they have another public relations nightmare on their hands and will have to pay either Gillis or Tortorella or even both to not work for them.