TORONTO – Let’s begin with a John Tortorella anecdote from eight years ago that echoes in my mind whenever the coach goes Full Torts.
Hartnell is an unlikely all-star in the midst of the best year of his hockey life, exploding for 37 goals on a line with Claude Giroux and Jaromir Jagr. He plays his shifts with an edge and a joy and is loved by virtually every teammate he’s had.
Thing is, he’s also a Philadelphia Flyer. Tortorella coaches the New York Rangers.
Now, I was aware that Tortorella isn’t big on publicly discussing his opposition, but you have to understand the tone of all-star weekend. It’s a party, a schmoozefest. Pressure is all the way off. Everyone’s in a cheery mood. Players and coaches answer an array of off-topic, lighthearted and, sometimes, ridiculous questions lobbed their way on media day.
Further, Tortorella will be “coaching” Hartnell in Sunday’s “game,” so technically he’s one of his players.
I pipe up in the scrum and volley some generic question about Hartnell’s game Tortorella’s way.
He swats it away like the LeBron block: I don’t talk about other teams. I coach New York. A glare burns from his eyes through my soul.
“Well, considering you’ll be on the same bench this—”
Fearing my “Brooksie” moment, I button my rookie mouth up.
When someone asks us a question before our morning pic.twitter.com/LkplySM3To
— Sportsnet 590 The FAN (@FAN590) July 30, 2020
I relay this tale not as condemnation of the five-time Jack Adams finalist’s approach to media relations. He has blessed us with yards of fantastic quotes and insights on his own players and his perspective of the game over the years, and the league is more interesting with him in it. Rather, I write this as a reminder that Tortorella’s teams have been operating inside a bubble long before bubbles became cool.
The coach defends his own and demands the same of his charges, often at a profane volume. (Sportsnet’s Anthony Stewart dropped this gem on-air today: “I don’t think they flew into the bubble from Columbus. I think Tortorella had them marching or bag-skating underground to get here.”)
As the small-market Columbus Blue Jackets sharpen their blades for a do-or-die series versus the headline-hoarding Toronto Maple Leafs, the casual hockey fan might not know that Zach Werenski was the only defenceman to snipe 20 goals this season.
Or that Leafs defender Justin Holl is concerned about the havoc Cam Atkinson can wreak in the offensive zone.
Or that Oliver Bjorkstrand might be one of the game’s most underrated forwards.
Or that the Jackets dressed two goalies with a better save percentage than Frederik Andersen.
But they know Torts. And they should know the forcefield he installs is akin to the one he expects his players to construct around the slot.
Tortorella instigated a five-second rule for play-in reporters to get their questions off during Zoom calls. Fumble with the “unmute” button, and it’s “Next!” Sigh.
“What could you possibly ask me today?” is how Tortorella began Tuesday’s Zoom conference with the press.
“None of your business what I’m saying to the players,” Tortorella snapped early at one of his club’s beat reporters Wednesday.
Cuddle time is over. Tortorella wants his squad to strap on its game face.
Social distancing suits the coach and this group just fine. They entered the hub wearing fun, identical “Let’s Play Bubble Hockey” T-shirts (organized by captain Nick Foligno) and carrying a collective chip on their shoulder.
Time to work pic.twitter.com/mc3m7sHSMS
— x-Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) July 27, 2020
Last spring’s stunner over the Lightning injected belief but not arrogance. Hunkering down for day after day of eat-sleep-hockey “fits with our mentality,” said Tortorella, who feels a surge of pride when he spots his leadership group hanging out with his young guys after practice.
“We’re not built with game-breakers. We’re not,” Tortorella said. “We’ve really bought into playing as a team.”
Sergei Bobrovsky got his payday in the sun. Artemi Panarin chose to spin his magic on Broadway.
“The core of their team, really, has remained the same. Players who make up who they are and how they want to play, they remain there,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, who scouted Thursday’s game inside Scotiabank Arena with his staff. “That leadership is clearly there, and they had great success this season as a team, despite a pile of injuries.”
Tortorella’s great task is making everyone in his bubble understand they’ll only slay giants if they pull on the slingshot together.
To a man, they must buy into a rigid and ugly (but effective) system that hinges on board battles and boxouts. It requires flinging your shinpads into the line of fire and driving north as fast as your legs will take you. Forcing and then pouncing on mistakes.
When it comes to outwitting the Maple Leafs, Tortorella’s cards are on the table.
“I don’t want you (media) guys to overthink it. There’s nothing special going on. We’re going to play as a team,” the coach insisted. “So, there’s nothing tricky going on here at all.”
At 11 a.m. the day before Thursday’s decisive 4-1 exhibition victory over the Presidents’ Trophy–winning Boston Bruins, Tortorella called a team meeting.
The lone item on the agenda: mindset.
Details of that discussion will remain guarded inside a bubble locked inside another bubble.
What followed was an on-ice workout the coach describes as the “best practice” all camp, a sharp development from the motivational wrist-slapping of Phase 3. And then an urgent showing against Boston.
“They’re a good forechecking team to begin with, and they certainly brought that tonight. Their mentality was that way. They gotta get after it right away, playing the Leafs,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said post-game.
“Mentally, they were more dialed in than we were early on, and it certainly showed.”
Tortorella is steeling himself to protect his guys at all costs. That’s the example.
“They want to play some games that mean something, and you can see the focus building up as we’re getting closer to that,” Tortorella said. “Everybody’s just sick of practising.
“These guys want to play against another uniform.”
The Maple Leafs — next uniform up — are in for a test.