Blue Jackets Changed Forever Thanks to John Tortorella

Dateline Oct 21, 2015.

The Columbus Blue Jackets were in an awful place. The 2015-16 season quickly went off the rails thanks to an 0-7-0 start. Confidence was gone. The team had nothing to lean on. It was a dark place for a team that had some hope for the season.

Head coach Todd Richards was fired by the Blue Jackets as a result. In came John Tortorella. As you could imagine at the time, reaction from the hockey world was mostly negative.

Tortorella’s last coaching job was in Vancouver and it lasted just one season. Was it going to be a repeat of that or any of his past antics? A change certainly needed to be made at that time, but many wondered if this was the right move.

From Humble Beginnings to Legend

When Tortorella first got to Columbus, he didn’t know any of the players. They had to wear their names on the back of their practice jerseys to start just so he could get to know them. Trying to build something with this Blue Jackets’ team was going to be a tall order. But they had to start somewhere.

And start they did. For the next 5+ years, Tortorella did what no coach was ever able to do for the Blue Jackets. Besides winning a playoff series for the first time in franchise history, he gave them something far more important in the grand scheme.

John Tortorella Blue Jackets bench
John Tortorella is the greatest coach in Blue Jackets’ history. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Tortorella brought the Blue Jackets relevance and respect. That’s what should be remembered about his time in Columbus. Although many things happened that have all led to this moment. In the end, he will be remembered as a legendary figure in Blue Jackets history no matter what happens moving forward.

Building a Culture

This was Tortorella’s biggest challenge coming in. He needed to help build a culture within the Blue Jackets’ locker room. It didn’t get off to the best of starts when he and Ryan Johansen didn’t see eye-to-eye on several key items. It led to perhaps one of the biggest trades in team history when Johansen was sent to the Nashville Predators. In came Seth Jones.

The Blue Jackets recovered to win 34 games that season after their 0-8-0 start, but it was not good enough to make the playoffs. Jones had a hand in this scoring two goals and 20 points in the 41 games he played that season with the Blue Jackets. But it was what happened on Apr 9, 2016 that will be remembered as a defining moment.

Tortorella benched Jones late in the game.

Seth Jones Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones’ career took off because of the work of Tortorella. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Jones was used to playing 24+ minutes per game as the anchor on the blue line. But in the season finale against the Chicago Blackhawks, Jones struggled and found himself on the bench after playing just 13:48.

It was the season finale in a meaningless game, but Tortorella was willing to bench Jones anyhow. His performance wasn’t good enough. It was a loud message not only to Jones but to everyone on the team. It didn’t matter who you were, you were eligible to ride the bench if the situation warranted it.

Accountability like this wasn’t seen much within the Blue Jackets before Tortorella’s arrival. If Jones can be benched, anyone can. This moment was an important lesson for Jones and one he hasn’t forgotten about to this day. But it was also the springboard to the most successful run in team history.

Finally, a culture was being established centered on accountability. This made the Tortorella hire the perfect one at the time.

Their Historic 2016-17 Season

Who could forget this season? A 16-game winning streak. 50 wins. A return trip to the playoffs. The work that Tortorella and the team put in was paying off. A foundation was starting to settle in. But much work remained.

The Blue Jackets ended that regular season with a 1-5-1 stretch that ultimately cost them home-ice advantage in the first round. The Pittsburgh Penguins eventually knocked the Blue Jackets out of the playoffs. A great regular season ended in a disappointing way.

Thanks to everything that happened in this season, expectations were forever changed. It was no longer good enough just to make the playoffs. The Blue Jackets had to find a way to win in the playoffs.

Tortorella won the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach. It became clear that what he was doing with this team was nothing short of amazing. But his best was yet to come.

Sweeping the Lightning

Tortorella led the Blue Jackets to another playoff appearance in 2017-18 before getting bounced in the first round by the Washington Capitals after being up 2-0. That one stung because they were an OT goal in Game 3 away from being up 3-0. The Capitals went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Still the momentum was strong for the Blue Jackets. But once again, distractions creeped into the locker room. Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin ultimately did not want to return to Columbus. How would they play despite this being the biggest storyline? And what would the trade deadline look like?

So instead, GM Jarmo Kekalainen goes all-in at the deadline bringing Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel on to help chase a Stanley Cup. Tortorella was able to meet this challenge head on of keeping the team focused on their goal. They got into the playoffs but drew a matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

This led to perhaps one of Tortorella’s most memorable moments in his Blue Jackets’ tenure. The speech. If this doesn’t motivate you, I’m not sure anything will.

The rest is history. After falling behind 3-0 in the first period of Game 1, the Blue Jackets stormed back and defeated the Lightning 4-3. They went on to a historic sweep of the President’s Trophy winners. This series will live in team history forever. This speech will too. This moment cemented Tortorella’s legacy with the Blue Jackets on the ice.

The Beginning of the End

The Blue Jackets ultimately fell to the Boston Bruins in six games that season. But then the inevitable happened. Panarin was gone. Bobrovsky was gone. The Blue Jackets didn’t offer Duchene a new contract. Many pieces were still there. But important players were leaving and it was just the beginning.

The Blue Jackets qualified for the play-in round in 2019-20 before the season was put on pause. They eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games before losing to the Lightning in the rematch in five games.

This season was good enough to make Tortorella a Jack Adams finalist. He didn’t win but many in the hockey world didn’t give the Blue Jackets a chance after losing a lot of talent. They continued to do their job the same way they’ve been doing it during their run of making the playoffs.

Could they build off of this now? It was clear early on that they couldn’t. Josh Anderson was traded for Max Domi. And then Pierre-Luc Dubois demanded a trade out of Columbus. In came Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic.

Pierre-Luc Dubois Columbus Blue Jackets
Pierre-Luc Dubois demanding a trade reinforced how different the team was going to look. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The team was now dramatically different despite several veterans still being there. They could never find consistency this season. David Savard and Nick Foligno were traded at the deadline for first-round picks. And it just seemed it was only a matter of time before Tortorella was done here too.

Lasting Impression of Tortorella in Columbus

Here we are today. The Blue Jackets and Tortorella agreed to mutually part ways on Sunday. But what an incredible run it has been. From all the successes on the ice to all the antics off the ice, there was never a dull moment with Tortorella behind the bench.

Tortorella made this Blue Jackets’ team relevant. Fans of other teams would follow along just because of Tortorella. Many wondered when his next blowup would be. But it was clear from the early going, Tortorella had the look of someone who has changed and learned from some of his mistakes.

In five seasons of covering Tortorella, there’s one major impression that I have. It’s that many will remember him for the wrong reasons.

John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
Many will remember John Tortorella for the wrong reasons. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Yes Tortorella was honest with his answers. Yes his answers would sometimes be very short just like his temper. But what we see on the outside is far from the person Tortorella really is. Here is a not all-inclusive list of what Tortorella was from my vantage point.

  • Tortorella’s passions are winning and developing people into leaders. Just ask anyone who has played for him. Jones once said that Tortorella “probably wants to win more than we do sometimes.”
  • Tortorella treats everyone the same no matter their role on the team. He’s consistent in that regard.
  • Tortorella is also consistent in how he handles his lineup and in-game decisions. It’s not that he’s always right, far from it actually. But the method he uses to make decisions is consistent. He allows the play to tell him who deserves more or less ice time.
  • Tortorella usually made it clear when he didn’t want to speak very long on something. He generally does not like post-game because it’s within the heat of the moment especially after a loss. The day after is when we usually got much better information from him on certain items. He hates to lose with a passion, almost to a fault.
  • Here’s where many could be surprised. Tortorella is a great human being. But many only see him on camera in front of the media so they get this impression of him that’s he’s always upset. His work with rescue dogs is a passion and a very admirable thing he’s doing. His weekly hit on 97.1 the Fan in Columbus with Hockey and Hounds was must listen to radio. They always ended with updates about rescue dogs. Just listen to Tortorella in these conversations.

My Lasting Impression

Ultimately, my lasting impression of Tortorella is someone who deeply cared about his players and would do what was necessary to get the best out of them. Not everyone handled this approach well. But those that did were better for it. If Jones ultimately becomes the next captain of the Blue Jackets, Tortorella will deserve a lot of credit for getting to that point.

Tortorella had many faults just like everyone else. It got him in trouble on numerous occasions. But he stayed true to who he was and doesn’t depend on what others think in terms of the way he handles his business.

Tortorella was the perfect hire at the time for the Blue Jackets. This parting of the ways seems to have come at the right time given where the team is at. Time has run its course and both parties are ready to move to their next opportunity.

Related: Tortorella’s Top-Five Blue Jackets Moments

It all started not knowing anyone on the ice. It ended with the harsh reality of a tough season during a pandemic. But in-between, Tortorella gave the Blue Jackets relevance and respect around the NHL. He also became their greatest coach to date. His time in Columbus will never be forgotten. He brought them something they’ve never had before. Sustained success. It might be one of the best coaching jobs ever given where the franchise was at the time of his hiring.

Don’t remember Tortorella for the antics. Remember him for changing the fortunes of the Columbus Blue Jackets forever. Without him, who knows where this team would be in their progression today.

Some Fan Stories

Let’s end with a couple of things fans said as to how they’ll remember Tortorella with the Blue Jackets.

  • Who can ever forget Tortorella picking up Tom Reed’s phone during a press conference and then speaking to his mother without missing a stride? Even Tortorella felt it was hilarious after the fact.
  • Remember the hoodie? No not Bill Belichick. But Tortorella. In 2018, he was sick and coached while wearing a hoodie. Who knew he had some fashion sense?
  • How about Tortorella the TV commercial star? Kinetico Water made sure that was a reality.
  • A couple of fans mentioned how Tortorella would appreciate fan support if he was seen in public. In Las Vegas after a win, Tortorella saw some fans who were cheering and singing chants on the strip. It led him to say “guys, you rock.” Thank you to Michael Nef for sharing that story.
  • As you would expect, fans loved how much Tortorella defended Columbus.
  • A great quote about the Lightning sweep: “We were supposed to suck.”
  • I guess Nick Foligno made for a pretty good captain after all. Tortorella once told Foligno he didn’t think he could be a captain.
  • How many times did he bring up “balls” during a presser? Werenski and Liam Foudy certainly come to mind there.
  • The Torts cut-out in Winnipeg was certainly a memory for several fans.
  • We’ll end with this. Tortorella was great when children got to ask questions. Remember when Dave Maetzold’s daughter got to ask why her favorite player Dalton Prout was a healthy scratch? She got to ask the first question and he handled it perfectly. It was an awesome moment and a great look at how good of a person Tortorella really is.

But it is now time to move on. Tortorella is gone but will never be forgotten in Columbus. He helped rescue the Blue Jackets from despair and put them in a much better place. His Blue Jackets’ tenure reinforces why he is one of the greatest coaches of all time who will eventually have a place waiting for him in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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