The Blue Jackets’ win Sunday, their ninth in a row, put John Tortorella in some special company. With the win, he becomes the 24th coach in league history to reach the 500-win plateau, joining the likes of legendary bench bosses Toe Blake, Pat Burns and Pat Quinn, and entering into the same company as modern-era coaching greats such as Mike Babcock, Darryl Sutter and Barry Trotz.
However, despite entering into territory that has been discovered before, Tortorella’s place on the list of 500-win coaches is unique: Tortorella, a Boston native, became the first American-born coach in league history to reach the mark. According to NHL.com’s Kevin Woodley, Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno gave the game puck to Tortorella following Columbus’ overtime victory.
Despite all the great coaching talent that has come from the United States, Tortorella reached the mark first thanks to some seriously solid seasons in the past, especially those with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers and, it appears, this season’s Blue Jackets.
Over seven seasons in Tampa Bay, Tortorella managed to pick up 239 wins in 535 games, and boasted a points percentage of .516 during his time with the Lightning. Relieved of his duties at the end of the 2007-08 season, Tortorella again found himself behind an NHL bench in the back half of the 2008-09 season, coaching the Rangers to a 12-7-2 record to end the year.
What followed was four seasons of successful hockey, over which time Tortorella’s Rangers went 171-115-29. However, the inability to turn regular season wins into post-season success put an end to his time behind the New York bench. By the end of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, Tortorella was again out of work, only to land a gig with the Canucks shortly after his firing.
None of Tortorella’s tenures were quite as contentious as his stay in Vancouver. It started with an infamous incident against the Flames that saw Tortorella enter into the Calgary’s locker room area and ended with a barely-above-.500 record — 36-35-11 — that resulted in his firing. He took a season off, and wound up in Columbus early in the 2015-16 season.
"I'll readily admit as I have gone through a little bit of a grind here the last few years and trying to get consistent with a team, I am trying to enjoy it more,” Tortorella said of coaching and the 500th win. “I am on the back nine, that's just the way it is. I know it's not going to be forever, so I do want to try to enjoy it.”
Tortorella likely won’t be the lone American to hit the 500-win mark for long, though. Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette is 10 wins away from becoming the second American-born coach with 500 wins.
Here are the top-five American-born coaches, ranked by wins:
1. John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets (500 wins): Managed the feat in 1,040 games. Is also one of only 14 coaches with 500 wins to also have a Stanley Cup.
2. Peter Laviolette, Nashville Predators (490 wins): Will likely join Tortorella this season and become the quickest American-born coach to reach the 500-win mark. He has coached 953 games and is only 10 victories shy of 500. He’ll become the 25th coach in league history to reach the milestone.
3. Dan Bylsma, Buffalo Sabres (299 wins): Came to prominence with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but wins haven’t come as easy in Buffalo. One win away from the 300th of his career, and he’ll be only the third American-born coach to reach the milestone.
4. Bob Johnson (234 wins): One of the greatest NCAA coaches in history with nearly 400 wins to his name, he came to the NHL as the coach of the Calgary Flames in 1982-83 and led the team to the Stanley Cup final by his fourth year with the organization. He would be out of the job by 1987-88, but return to the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990-91 and win a Stanley Cup in his first year. Tragically, Johnson was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away in November 1991. He was posthumously inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
5. Robbie Ftorek (229 wins): He has been a bench boss on three separate occasions, but never has he managed to stick around beyond his second season. Starting with a two-year stint in Los Angeles in 1987-88, Ftorek managed a 65-56-11 record before moving on. He coached again a decade later, going 88-44-19 with the New Jersey Devils over the course of two seasons before being removed right before the post-season. He landed with the Bruins in 2001-02, coached two seasons, went 76-52-14 and was fired in 2002-03. Ftorek currently coaches the ECHL’s Norfolk Admirals.