Ryan Craig, like most other observers, can’t help but be entertained when he watches John Tortorella’s oft-combative dealings with the media.
But as the Vancouver Canucks prepared to introduce Tortorella as their new head coach on Tuesday, Craig asserted that there’s more to the man than a few incendiary sound bites.
And he’s more educated than most on the topic. The 31-year-old Abbotsford-born forward spent three seasons (2005-06 to 2007-08) under Tortorella’s tutelage with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“He’s a good man and a good hire,” Craig told The News, offering a ringing endorsement of the Canucks’ decision to bring in Tortorella. “I had my best years with him, and to me, he’s a fiery guy who I loved playing for.
“He’s a very, very loyal human being to his players and his staff. A lot of people don’t see behind the scenes how he treats people who work for the organization with a lot of respect.”
Tortorella, who replaces Alain Vigneault behind the Canucks’ bench, helmed the Lighting for parts of seven seasons (2000 to 2008), winning the Stanley Cup in 2004. After being dismissed by Tampa, he was hired by the New York Rangers and guided the Blueshirts to four playoff berths in five years, including a trip to the conference finals in 2012. He was fired after the Rangers were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the second round this spring.
Along the way, Tortorella produced some of the sport’s most memorable coach-media clashes, frequently breathing fire in the direction of “Brooksie” – New York Post columnist Larry Brooks – in clips which will continue to collect YouTube views long after his coaching career is done.
“The most interesting one was when I was in Tampa and we were in New Jersey playing the Devils in the (2007) playoffs,” Craig said. “That’s the first Brooksie exchange that kind of made it famous.
“But I don’t think anything he says in the press is anything his players don’t already know to a certain extent.”
Tortorella can be as blunt with his players as he is with the media. But Craig, known as a hard-nosed player with an honest work ethic, thrived under that tough-love approach in Tampa. He scored 15 goals and 13 assists in 48 games as a rookie in 2005-06, and posted 14 goals and 13 helpers in 72 games the following season before knee and back injuries conspired to sidetrack his progress.
“Each guy reacts differently (to Tortorella),” Craig noted. “You may not like what is said, or the honest truth. It’s very black and white with him.
“He demands his players be in shape, he demands his players compete and work hard. Sometimes mistakes happen, and you need to learn from those. For me, if you put in the effort and the work and play the right way, he’s a very loyal and fair coach.
“You know where you stand. I don’t think you’re going home at night wondering why this happened or that happened. There’s reasons, and he’s going to be fair about it.”
In recent years, Craig has spent more time in the AHL than the NHL. In the summer of 2010, he departed the Lightning organization as a free agent and signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins, getting into six NHL games over the next two years while playing primarily with their farm team, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Last season, with NHL contracts tough to come by with the lockout looming, Craig settled for a one-year AHL deal with the Springfield Falcons. He turned in a terrific campaign with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ affiliate, serving as captain and posting 20 goals and 27 assists in 75 games.
He’ll be an unrestricted free agent on July 5, and he’s aiming to sign a two-way NHL/AHL contract. He’s hopeful to get something done with Columbus before free agency opens, and if not, he’ll test the market.
“I believe I’ve put myself in a position to be a depth guy to help a National Hockey League team,” he said.