John Tortorella, most recently head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, is a future Hall of Famer. He has been behind the bench for more wins than any other U.S.-born coach in NHL history, has his name is on the Stanley Cup (2004, Tampa Bay Lightning), and he is a two-time Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year (2004 Tampa Bay, 2017 Columbus). He also, shall we say, has a “reputation”, but if you ask his former players, it’s undeserved.
After the 2020-21 season, and after it was made public that Tortorella would not be returning to Columbus next season, the players were asked about their former coach, among other things, during their exit interviews. Since they wouldn’t be playing under him (most likely) anytime soon, there was no reason to pull any punches or sugar-coat their answers.
To a man, they said good things about Tortorella. (You can find all the exit interviews in the “Jackets TV Features” section on the Blue Jackets’ official website.)
Torts in the Media
If you search the name ”John Tortorella”, you could spend an afternoon reading critical articles and stories about him, his approach to coaching, and how he interacts with his players. But don’t bother. I’ve already done it for you. Here are some highlights (or lowlights):
- “The general consensus is that Tortorella’s a horrible coach for most teams.”
- “Rangers fire bully bench boss John Tortorella for all the right reasons.”
- “No doubt about it, John Tortorella is a polarizing coach; he was before, during, and might be one after his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets.”
- “As usual, Tortorella’s season in Columbus had its controversies with the players.”
- “The same inflexibility that squeezes every last drop of talent out of a roster also alienates his best players….”
(from “John Tortorella Doesn’t Know How To Be Any Other Way,” Barry Petchesky, Defector.com, May 10, 2021)
That’s a small sample of what journalists have said about Tortorella and his coaching style.
Yes, he can be brusque with the media – Search “John Tortorella post game video” for some highlights, including this link, and “John Tortorella funniest moments” for some entertaining YouTube clips. He has also been fined by the NHL for postgame comments, including this (very justified) outburst:
The NHL fined him $20,000 for those comments, and added an unusual condition to the punishment: If he acted up again, he’d be fined another $25,000. Yup, he nailed that one, too.
Torts and the Dubois Situation
Tortorella is constantly criticized for alienating his players. Several press reports blamed him after star center Pierre-Luc Dubois demanded a trade in January (“Pierre-Luc Dubois is another star his coach has thrown away“). “Tortorella has always used a tough-love approach and, while it doesn’t work for all, just look at how things panned out between him and center Pierre-Luc Dubois,” wrote Andrew Steele-Davis for Puck Prose.
But those comments aren’t justified. Tortorella was not the reason Dubois wanted a trade from Columbus. How do we know? Here’s what Dubois had to say:
“He’s a hard coach, I can take it. Nothing’s personal. I grew up with a dad who’s a coach and he told me if a coach challenges you, it’s never personal; he just wants what’s best for you. And that’s how I see ‘Torts’ and I have nothing but respect for him.“Dubois doesn’t blame Tortorella after trade from Blue Jackets to Jets,” Tim Campbell, NHL.com Staff, Jan. 24, 2021
“I have nothing but respect for him.”
Does that sound like a player who has been “thrown away” by his coach? Do those words sound like Tortorella’s “tough-love approach” didn’t work?
What His Players Had to Say About Torts
Here’s what the Blue Jackets players had to say about their former coach in the exit interviews (listed alphabetically):
“Torts was my coach for the last six years, so not matter what, it’s going to be different. The expectations of training camp, of how you practice, and how you approach a game, I think that’s definitely helped me become the player I am today, for sure, there’s no question. How you prepare and stuff like that. So, whoever (general manager) Jarmo (Kekäläinen) does bring in its, uh, I know how to prepare, I know how to get ready for a game, and practice, and training camp, and stuff like that. So, as well as every other guy that’s been here, that’s been playing under Torts for at least two to the six years that he’s been here, so, um, yeah. It’s going to be very tough to replace John Tortorella. Just look at his resume.”
[Atkinson also talked about the culture of expecting to win.] “It started with Torts and that trickle-down effect for the players and everyone believing and buying in, and that brick-by-brick mentality. I think Torts has done a great job at instilling that within our system and the leaders that, um, we know what it takes to win.”
[And there’s this comment.] “It’s been six years together. Learned a lot from him. Definitely grown, not just as a hockey player, but as a person. That’s all you want as a player. A coach that trusts you,” (from John Tortorella won’t be back as coach of Columbus Blue Jackets)
“As far as obviously Torts, yeah, it’s going to be different, too. He’s obviously going to be missed. But at the same time, he’s the only coach I’ve had in the NHL, so I also excited to try something new and see what that is. We’ve got to remember a lot of the stuff Torts taught us here about hard work, battling, um, just the right way to play.”
“I think Torts did a great job of holding us all on board here and kind of steering the ship in the direction that he knew he could. I think Torts is a great human being. I certainly learned a lot from him and really appreciate everything he did. For me personally, it sucks when you have a short little window to showcase you as a human, as a person, to your coach. I definitely (chuckles) let him down a little bit to the way I played, so I take that upon myself. But I feel very thankful that I had a chance to play for a future Hall of Fame coach, for sure. He’s a special guy, and I definitely didn’t get to know him as well as I would have liked to. I really appreciate everything he did for me.”
“(Tortorella) has put a big impact on this club, a lot of guys in the room, myself, the whole organization. So, you know, I think Torts mostly talks about the process, and I think that’s what I’m going to miss the most with him. The stuff we’ve went through over the past six years with him, the ups and the downs, all that kind of brought us together and gave us some good success, and I’m going to miss that, for sure. Going through it together, with him, with the guys in the room, when you look back, it’s pretty special, and I’m pretty proud to be a part of it, so, yeah, I’m going to miss that for sure.”
”He always found a way to motivate us with a speech. Obviously, he was a very fiery coach and a very emotional coach at times, but at the end of the day he wanted to win just as bad as we did. And he was one of the most passionate coaches I’ve ever played for. And he’s definitely helped my development through these five years I’ve been here, tremendously. The player I’ve grown into, he’s definitely had a key role in that.”
[When asked by my THW colleague Mark Scheig: How has Tortorella helped you?] “Bigtime. It’s six years with him. I was 21 years old when he came in. I was a rookie back then. Just how he handled everything here. I always respected him, and I think me growing as a player and more as a person with him, you know. What he expected of me every day. Every day I was coming to the rink, and he was being honest every time. It grew me as a person a lot, and just being thankful for him being always honest. I respect him a lot. Great season with him – I learned a lot, for sure.”
“Great coach. Great person. Sad that I’m not going to have (the) opportunity to work with him anymore now. He teached me a lot. He was the guy who settled me down and gave me the chance to understand the league. He was the guy who calmed me down, who gave me the opportunity to grow as a man, even outside of hockey, so I’m really, really thankful for that help and, obviously, I’m going to miss that kind of personality.”
“To have him there to help me grow, I think it went well. He definitely helped me out. It was definitely, you know, harder times than not, so it was one way that I like to learn.”
“Personally, I love Torts. Me and Torts went through it. My first year I came in, it was smooth sailing. My second and third years, I had some struggles defensively. He was hard on me; he pushed me to be better. And I think as of the last few years, just going through that process with him, becoming a better hockey player, seeing what he means to the room, the city, the organization. I’m very honored to have played for him for the first five years of my career, and, you know, it was awesome. I loved playing for him for every minute. And I think it will be weird. I’ve only had one coach in the NHL, so I’m not too sure what to expect with a different one, but obviously, he set the bar high, and, like I said, I really enjoyed playing for him. It’s tough when your only coach and a guy you have that much respect for moves on, but I wish him nothing but the best. Like I said, it was awesome to play for him, and it was an honor.”
The players “learned from him,” and he “taught” them and helped them “grow.” He “will be missed” and has the players’ “respect.” He’ll be “tough to replace.” That is how his players describe Tortorella.
Not Sucking Up
We know this wasn’t an attempt to curry favor, because they knew he wouldn’t be their coach next season. Yes, they could be reunited years later. It happened to the 2020-21 Blue Jackets. Michael Del Zotto was a rookie with the New York Rangers when he was first coached by Tortorella. Torts recalled that it wasn’t an easy time:
I had Del Z when he came in as a first-year player in New York — full of swagger, sometimes a little bit too much swagger. (He) went through the process with me. Sent him down, wasn’t happy — all that stuff that we always talk about when you’re developing with a young guy, he went through it with me.“Del Zotto, Tortorella together again with Blue Jackets,” Jeff Svoboda, BlueJackets.com, Jan. 17, 2021
Here’s what Del Zotto had to say about Torts:
“The thing with Torts, you know where you stand with him. He’s brutally honest. If you can take it, if you have thick skin, there’s no other coach you’d rather play for. When you play for coaches where you don’t know where you stand, it’s tough to have a conversation with (them). You’re not sure if they’re telling the truth or not with you. With him, you know where you stand every day, and that’s very hard to find. He wears his heart on his sleeve, too. He would do anything for his players.”“Del Zotto, Tortorella together again with Blue Jackets,” Jeff Svoboda, BlueJackets.com, Jan. 17, 2021
“He would do anything for his players.”
That may not be the version of Tortorella that the media likes to portray, but it’s the one his players know.
Pete Bauer is both a hockey fan and player. As a columnist for The Hockey Writers.com, he covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, NCAA hockey, and NHL trends, statistics, and history. He’s considered the go-to guy for info on the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHL Players’ Association and other hockey-related legal mumbo-jumbo. He’s a frequent guest on a variety of podcasts. You’ll find all of his THW columns here. Pete is also the author of over a dozen books on photography, digital imaging, and graphics, including “Photoshop CC for Dummies.”