From a distance John Tortorella’s act — presuming it was an act — may have been amusing. His one-word answers and condescending-turned-to-11 routine, sandwiched around the odd profanity-laced tirade made for some good entertainment.
News that he was fired as head coach of the New York Rangers Wednesday was an excellent excuse to collect ‘best-of packages’ of his worst moments. They are fun in their own way.
But they tend not to capture some of the quieter moments such as when he’d look to a guy making a miniscule fraction of his salary and needing a clip for the news about … anything … and respond by using the power of his pulpit and his status as the head coach of the mighty Rangers to make whoever it might be feel about two inches tall for doing his job.
Cut ‘em down, smirk, do it again. Up close it wasn’t fun or funny at all.
He’s been the subject of a Steve Porter remix. His explosive rants about the ‘whiny Pittsburgh Penguins stars’ or his battles with Larry Brooks of the New York Post are YouTube classics.
Good for him and undoubtedly good for fans who enjoy a little pepper with what is normally a pretty bland soup.
But from where I sat during the Rangers-Senators series last season, when Tortorella took his obstinacy to a new — low — level that he carried through the playoffs, he was a bully who enjoyed turning convention on its head for no apparent reason — like a kid picking legs off a spider.
And it’s not like I’m the type that takes these kinds of things personally. I’ve had a coach call me during rare family dinners to spew 45 minutes of (I suspect) drunken vitriol. I’ve had a coach call me a homophobic slur and I’ve had coaches snub me on national television. I’ve flown across North America to interview a coach and been cancelled on. Lots of days they’re just plain rude, and doubtless there have been more than a few times it’s been justified. It’s part of the job.
But Tortorella was something else.
It’s human nature to suggest that there was a method to the madness, but in this day and age of quantifying everything it would probably take about 10 seconds to recognize that there is zero correlation between wasting everyone’s time and presenting yourself as above spooning platitudes — let alone thoughtfully responding to an honest question — and actually winning anything.
Coaches come in all stripes. Some can’t shut up. Some are loathe to talk. Some want to be liked, desperately. Some are so paranoid they figure everyone hates them and treat everyone accordingly.
It’s a weird job.
But there is one common thread among coaches who eventually get exposed and those that last, and it’s not being nice to the media or anyone else for that matter. I’d venture it’s the ones that are true to themselves that have a shelf life, a legacy and some measure of lasting success.
Tortorella has his Stanley Cup ring from Tampa Bay as his armour against criticism, but then again a lot of squirrels find nuts.
But the bully act Tortorella presented in public always meant a little more to me, for some reason. Here was a coach who was by any measure a marginal professional hockey player who required his players to throw themselves in front of pucks at a rate never before seen in the NHL.
He struck me as the worst kind of general — the kind that encourages his troops to make great physical sacrifices without having any of his own battle scars to show them.
Instead he’d ‘fight’ the media, proving how tough he was by refusing to answer a question about the power play or his line matchups.
The fight never really came, however, with the odd exception. No one was there to test his will. They needed some insight into the game or the series or a player and it was their job to ask them and his — in theory — to answer.
That he chose not to with a snarl wasn’t proof of anything other than his own infatuation with himself and maybe a misguided belief that he was primed for battle just like his team was.
Except it wasn’t the case at all. The Rangers were a pretty good team under his watch mainly because they had Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the world’s greatest goalie and one who — based on a between-the-lines reading of his exit interview — got tired of having to be good enough to win playoff games 1-0, which may have been why Tortorella got the axe.
They were a 109-point regular season team that made it to the Eastern Conference final a year ago because they played hard and for each other. Maybe Tortorella was the catalyst for that, maybe not.
But this season it was a team that by all accounts didn’t play as hard or cohesively. The reasons why exactly will likely ‘stay in the room’, to borrow a Tortorella catch phrase. Maybe his act wore thin enough his players could see through it.
It’s a fool’s game to judge a person based on how he treats the media — I’m almost never tempted by it.
But it was so central to the Tortorella persona it’s hard not to give it a whack. He’s a man who is described as capable of being perfectly kind away from the spotlight, active in charitable causes and the like. The relationship he struck up with Liam Trayner, a young man suffering from cerebral palsy and captured for the cameras on the HBO 24/7 series seemed sincere and reflected well on him.
Which leaves the question: is Tortorella a tough guy pretending to be nice, or a nice guy pretending to be tough?
One way or the other there’s no doubt he enjoyed playing the bully and just as much chance he’s a phony.