Confession: I am very much afraid of John Tortorella. This disclosure doesn’t come lightly. I’m aware that it affects my credibility as a sports writer, and, in general, as a man.
That’s fine. I’m confident in my CV. I’ve interviewed many intimidating people in my career but none have chilled me to silence as fearfully as the New York Rangers head coach. He is, of course, a decent man. There are many accounts of his charitable deeds, his kindness to children, and even speculation that puppies make him smile. But still, I fear Tortorella and suspect I’m not alone. And that’s not likely to change any time soon. Torts will face a barrage of questions this season—about the addition of superstar Rick Nash, or his testy relationship with sniper Marian Gaborik, or how the Rangers can top Crosby and the Penguins in the East. And once again, Torts will deflect, divert and derail the conversation with a seemingly smug disregard for the fourth estate. Sharp and calculated, he’ll control the scrums with an aura that says he’s the smartest person in the room. Because, when you understand his real purpose and intent, that’s precisely what John Tortorella is.
At a post-game press conference last spring, he strode to the front of the room with the authority of a head of state, flanked by the prickly John Rosasco, the Rangers’ VP of public relations, who wore a black suit and the stern expression of a secret-service agent. The room was filled with well-established journalists, a who’s who of sports scribes. I fiddled with my recorder, checked that my phone was on silent and mouthed the questions scribbled in my notebook as the human motorcade made its way to the podium. My palms were sweaty. Tortorella stood at the front of the room and stared at the pack with an apparent mix of disinterest and contempt. (It’s absurd, after all, that an NHL coach should have to face reporters, who pass information to the hockey fans on whom this entire industry depends.)
The questions came quickly, but quietly—as with most comments directed toward the notoriously gruff, frequently quick-tempered Tortorella. He’s been known to provide his own commentary on how reporters are doing: “What the hell kind of question is that?” he asks in one clip. “That’s a stupid question to ask me,” he says in another. (His short, evasive answers have been mixed into a delightful techno track called “Next Question,” which has become a YouTube hit.) When asking Tortorella a question, even a reasonable one, it’s understood that you are opening yourself up to becoming the next reporter he takes viral. But his rage toward the press is nothing compared to the wrath he’s capable of inflicting on his own players. This from an intermission pep talk in the Rangers’ dressing room caught on camera:
“I asked you to f---ing defend! I’ve seen you f---ing defend before! And you’re going to do it here! If that’s how we’re going to battle, we’re not going to have a chance to win! Jesus Christ! How many times do we have to talk about it?! So f---ing screw it on straight here! Stiffen up here! Help one another. But I tell you, if you’re not going to be stiff, you’re not going to play. I’m warning you all.”
Al Pacino couldn’t have said it better. Tortorella has the inspiring speech down. He has the cantankerous press conference down. He is a hurricane of a coach, ripping through anything that stands in the way of his goal: the Stanley Cup. And this is why he’s brilliant.
At the end of this particular press conference—following a loss to the Senators in the first round of the 2012 playoffs—as my lips formed words and an apprehensive breath worked up the courage to push a question from my mouth, Tortorella sensed a lull—a single second of dead air, tops. “Good?” he asked, rhetorically. “Thank you.” And he left.
But, but, but… there are so many questions left unanswered. So many things to elaborate on. So many queries to understand the time-bomb that is Tortorella—arguably the best NHL coach of this short century. Famously, he refused to answer questions about his Jack Adams nomination (his third; one win) as the league’s top coach, an honour earned by leading the Rangers to the best record in the Eastern Conference. “The great part about Torts is that he couldn’t care less what people outside his team think about him,” says Jay Feaster, who was GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning when Tortorella led them to a Stanley Cup in 2004.
To fully understand the Tao of Torts, you have to go beyond the man the bookmakers are favouring to win the Stanley Cup in this lockout-shortened season. From a quiet freshman at the University of Maine, where he handed out rental skates at the campus rink, to hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head. This is Tortorella: actual press conference answers—the blanks filled in with a little help from his friends.
Reporter: “Are you this way with us just because you don’t like dealing with us, or is there a strategy behind not revealing very much?”
Tortorella: “Are you being a wise-ass?”
Tim Taylor, member of the 2004 Stanley Cup–winning Tampa Bay Lightning, coached by Tortorella: “I was very fortunate. I had three unbelievable coaches: Scotty Bowman, Pat Burns and John Tortorella. And they all had the same kind of character. To the media they seem like hard-ass coaches. They bring this production to their press conferences. But at the end of the day, they are the most sincere guys behind closed doors with their players. And all they do is demand that you play hard, and play as a team. When Torts does those press conferences, 90 percent of the time he’s protecting his players. He does it for a reason.”
Reporter: “The exchange between you and DeBoer…” (Referring to a screaming match with New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer during game four of the Eastern Conference final.)
Tortorella: “I’m not going to answer any questions on that. Thank you.”
Dr. Pete DeArmas, leading scorer of the Virginia Lancers of the old Atlantic Coast Hockey League in 1987, which Tortorella led to a championship during his first season as a coach—a year after hanging up his skates as a member of the team: “He hasn’t changed in 25 years. He’s always got his game face on. He knows what his role is—whether it’s to intimidate referees or antagonize opposing coaches. That’s what he does in order to spark his guys. You’re always looking for the edge. So he’s a little more verbal and animated. If he can get his guys to step it up, then he’s doing his job.”
Reporter: “You don’t like to single out individuals.”
Tortorella: “This isn’t golf. This is a team sport. It has to be… You push every individual within the team sport to be the best they can be. But you have to combine that within a concept, in a team concept.”
Dixon Ward, member of the 1996 Rochester Americans, winner of the Calder Cup in Tortorella’s first season as coach of the team: “He sees himself as part of the team. He’s got the reputation of, regardless of who you are, if you’re not on board, you’re not going to play. Nobody’s immune. He cares so much about his leadership group, and he respects them tremendously. You almost hurt his feelings if you don’t give him everything you’ve got. What people don’t understand about John Tortorella is that they think he’s all about himself. But he’s all about the team. He doesn’t care about any accolades. He doesn’t seek out media. But he’s smart enough to use his comments to take attention away from the players. And the players know that, and they respect that. You’re never guessing what Torts wants from you, and he’s not afraid to tell you if you’re not giving it to him.
“He wants his group to know that he’s engaged with them, and he’s never going to leave them out to dry. His only focus every day is to bring the New York Rangers the Stanley Cup. He’s a workaholic.”
Reporter: “When did you make shot-blocking a core part of your identity?”
Reporter: “This wasn’t the same way in Tampa, right?”
Reporter: “That team blocked shots like this one?”
Reporter: “It was a different style of hockey, wasn’t it?”
Tortorella: “No. You have to play defence to win. Blocking shots is playing defence. That team in Tampa played defence.”
Reporter: “I understand that. But I don’t remember it being—obviously you know it better than I do.”
Tortorella: “I do.”
Jack Semler, head coach at the University of Maine from 1978 to 1981, when Tortorella played there as a right-winger: “He was very quiet off the ice. Never really heard a peep from him. In a team meeting he’d be the last player to ask a question. He did his talking on the ice. He was very attentive to the kind of hockey that we wanted to play. He was a hard-nosed worker. He was such a positional player. He wouldn’t let his back check breathe, he’d go right to his own post so the guy couldn’t receive a pass. I don’t remember him ever being out of position. He played with a lot of emotion. When he spoke, people listened.”
From the quiet intensity of his playing days, to the fiery temper that once had him chuck a water bottle into the stands and hit a little old lady in the head during a Rochester Americans game (Ward witnessed that one), Tortorella has been a team-first, damn-the-critics warrior. Along the way, he canned a handful of his former teammates in Virginia, deciding to go with a younger squad when he became coach. He holds his players accountable regardless of star status. As an assistant in New York in 2000, with a team expected to have a shot at the Stanley Cup, Tortorella assumed the role of disciplinarian as the season tanked. Star forward Theo Fleury struggled with off-ice demons and was a distraction in practice. Despite being second in team scoring, Tortorella had Fleury benched for the final four games of the season. “John Muckler didn’t do a great job behind the bench with discipline, but Torts tried to walk a fine line and help out in that aspect,” says Taylor, who joined the team that season. “I think he did a great job.”
Jay Feaster sat in on meetings in Tampa Bay between Tortorella and disgruntled Lightning centre Vinny Lecavalier. Despite their differences, Tortorella listened to the complaints and concerns of the team’s star. He can dish it out, sure, but he’s willing to take it too, Feaster says. “He doesn’t hold a grudge. He’ll battle you, but the next time it’s a clean slate.”
Tortorella has done, and continues to do, what is necessary for his team to win. Every battle—with individual players, the media or other coaches—is a calculated manoeuvre. It’s a psychological process: to spark a change, to deflect criticism, to ignite a competitive blaze. And maybe, when you’re on the inside and that battle is being won, Tortorella isn’t all that scary after all. “He’s one of the kindest people you could ever meet,” Taylor assures me. I’ll just take his word on that.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.