Hidden behind all the nonsense is the fact John Tortorella can be a very good coach.
The 58-year-old veteran bench boss has proved it time and time again, particularly in 2003-04 when he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup championship; allowing his players to show offence and creativity in a league that had become bogged down with clutching and grabbing.
Safe is death was Tortorella’s mantra back then and he convinced his players to embrace his adventurous coaching style. He was named the NHL’s Coach of the Year in 2004.
Too often since then, Tortorella has allowed himself to become a sideshow. His antics often took away from the good job he was doing managing questionable talent.
In New York, where he guided the Rangers to a 171-118-30 record in 319 games, Tortorella became better known for his daily run-ins with respected New York Post veteran beat writer Larry Brooks than coaching the team. Brooks calls ’em as he sees ’em – as a good journalist should – and that didn’t always sit well with the coach who would often lapse into verbal sparring matches with the reporter that would gain international attention.
There was also an incident during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2009 when Tortorella responded to being heckled by fans of the Washington Capitals by throwing a water bottle and trying to spear a fan between two panes of glass with a stick he grabbed from one of his players. He was not ejected from the game, but was suspended by the NHL the following day.
In his one season behind the bench of the Vancouver Canucks, with which he was 36-35-11, Tortorella was involved in an infamous altercation on Jan. 18, 2014 when he entered the Calgary Flames dressing room area in an effort to engage with Flames coach Bob Hartley between periods following a first period line brawl. Tortorella was restrained by players and coaches and was suspended by the NHL for 15 days without pay.
Despite all the shenanigans, I have always believed in Tortorella’s ability to be an effective coach. I have a theory about him, though.
In an effort to prove to his players he wants to win as desperately – if not more so – than them, he comes across as trying to be one of them. That is when things tend to spin out of control. Long before his beard became a permanent fixture, he – like the players – would grow a playoff beard. Silly.
When things get out of control during games, Tortorella wants to show his players he is willing to fight for them. Even sillier.
After Tortorella was fired by the Canucks, many wondered if he had painted himself into a corner. Had his volatile reputation made him untouchable? Perhaps to some, yes, but not to Blue Jackets president John Davidson who got to know him when Tortorella was coaching the New York Rangers. Davidson knows all about Tortorella’s ability to be an effective coach when he is focused.
So when the Blue Jackets lost their first seven games in 2015-16, Todd Richards was fired and replaced by Tortorella who guided the team to a respectable 34-33-8 record. Not everyone believed in his ability, however.
After making headlines by saying he would bench any player who elected to sit on the bench during the playing of the National Anthem while coaching the United States to a disappointing 0-3 record at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, some wondered if Tortorella wasn’t losing his focus…again.
In its pre-season commentary entitled ‘31 Bold Predictions for The 2016-17 Season’ TSN.ca proclaimed Tortorella would not survive the first month of the season as the Blue Jackets spiral toward last place in the East.
Well, not only did Tortorella make it out of the first month, he currently has his Blue Jackets sitting in sixth place overall and riding a four-game winning streak. Not only was he still behind their bench, Tortorella was a legitimate contender through the first quarter of the season to win his second Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach.
There is still plenty of time remaining in the season and things could certainly go south, but it seems like Tortorella has a good grasp on what he needs to do to remain a successful NHL coach.
“I think he’s maybe been a little more relaxed and perhaps a little bit different with the scheduling of days off,” said Blue Jackets forward Brandon Saad. “For the most part, though, he is who he is and he demands the most out of his players.”
For those who only know Tortorella through the viral YouTube videos that paint him as a madman, you might think he’s an incurable crackpot. For those of us who have the pleasure of knowing him on a more personable level, we know a good person lurks under the craziness. He just needs to control that craziness.