By Kristina Rutherford/Illustration by Kagan McLeod
By Kristina Rutherford/Illustration by Kagan McLeod
The most controversial coach in the NHL opens up about family, dogs and all those classic Top 10 lists of his biggest blowups

Age: 58
Height: 5-8
Weight: 175 lb.
Hardware: 2004 Stanley Cup

KR I hear you don’t like talking about yourself.
JT No, I don’t.

KR How is this going to go, then?
JT Well, I’ll do the best I can. [Laughs.]

KR OK. Can you tell me a bit about your childhood? I know you had four siblings.
JT Do we have to go all the way back there, Kristina?

KR Well, we need to get to know you.
JT Oh, gosh. Why did I agree to this? Nothing against you, but why did I? Umm, my childhood: We were brought up middle-class; my parents were hard-working people. My dad was an electrician, and I’m proud of the values my parents taught us. As you can see, I hate talking about this.

KR Want me to change the subject?
JT Yes, I do.

From left: Tortorella's wife, Christine; son, Nick; daughter, Brittany

KR I know you and your family are heavily involved in animal-welfare causes.
JT We got involved with a non-profit animal shelter in Westchester County [in New York] and we saw what the conditions were—conditions you would not believe. [Dogs] stuck in cages, feces everywhere, malnutrition, some had broken backs. We got the people who were running the non-profit to turn it over to a group of us as volunteers and we slowly started rehabilitating the dogs. There is a need for not just money, but time, love, care, vetting, everything.

KR You’re from Boston originally. Are you a Red Sox fan?
JT I am a New York Yankees fan and a New York Giants fan. How that happened I have no idea.

KR I heard you wore your baseball uniform under your high school graduation gown.
JT [Laughs.] We had just been eliminated from the playoffs. It was my last year. We got back and the graduation was going on and I did not wanna go. A number of coaches came into the locker room and said, “You have to go.” I went there kickin’ and screamin’. We had just lost a big game and that’s all I cared about at that point in time. [Laughs.]

KR So you were an emotional player.
JT Yeah, in all sports I think emotion is a big part of it. It’s part of my coaching style, also. I think it’s one of my biggest strengths and it’s probably one of my biggest weaknesses.

KR What makes it a weakness?
JT When you get wrapped up and you don’t think things out—obviously it’s been very well-chronicled as far as some of the situations that have gone on with the media. But—and I’m honest about this—it has also gone on in the locker rooms, where I think I’ve handled players wrong, and I have said maybe the right things to players but the wrong way, and through emotion. I’m still trying to get better at that.

KR Any player, any situation in particular that you…
JT No. I’m not telling you.

“No matter how hard I am on my players—and I am hard on my players—I'm gonna protect them from the media”

KR Fair. What type of player were you?
JT Zero talent. Yeah, zero. I just enjoyed competing and I did compete—I played hard. And the league I was in, I belonged in. I think it was called the ACHL at that time, and that’s what started me coaching. A good friend of mine, Henry Brabham, who was the owner of the Virginia Lancers, gave me my first opportunity to explore coaching. He asked me to coach his team after I blew my knees out and I couldn’t play any more.

KR You hadn’t even thought about coaching before that?
JT Oh, no. I was single, I was playing in a league that was a lot of fun. I played sports all through high school, college, and I thought I’d be playing forever.

KR Did you ever think you’d coach 1,000 NHL games?
JT Not a chance. When you’re in it and you’re grinding away, sometimes players are sick of the coach and the coach is sick of the players. You go through a long season. But when I left [he was fired by the Vancouver Canucks, and had more than a year off], that is what I missed most, being with the players in the locker room. No matter how good or bad it was going with the team, that’s where I’ve grown up and that’s where I want to be.

KR When you took over the Blue Jackets last October, did it feel at all similar to your first job as coach in Tampa?
JT Very similar.

KR That turned out well.
JT We had some really good players. But quite honestly, in Tampa, I thought the mindset was very similar. We had guys skipping out of workouts and it was a bit dysfunctional. I wouldn’t call this dysfunctional, because I think [Todd Richards], the man I replaced, is a really good coach. He left me with quite a bit of structure here. But I think we need to expect more out of one another and I don’t think everybody should be happy all the time; we’re a happy group. But we’re a happy group being in 25th and 26th. I think if you’re miserable at times and not everything’s going your way or you’re being pushed and you don’t like it and you’re trying to fight back, it makes you a stronger group, and you handle some of the adversity and the momentum swings.

KR How would you describe your relationship with the media?
JT You need to ask them, I mean…

KR It’s a two-way thing, right?
JT Yeah, it’s a two-way thing. I’ll put it this way: I think I have better relationships with them now because I have tried to keep my emotions in check, where early in my career I would have argued with them, I would have fought with them, and it escalated into things that I regret. So I’ve tried to approach that in a better way. Having said that, the media has some onus here, too, in the way they handle things with players. No matter how hard I am on my players—and I am hard on my players—I’m going to protect them from the media. If things are said wrong about them or how they played, I’m going to protect my players. And that’s the root of the problem. If they’re writing things and it’s just throwing it against the wall and seeing if it sticks and they don’t have their facts, yeah, I get pissed. Especially when it comes to my players. But I’m trying to be better at that.

“I've handled players wrong, and I have said maybe the right things but the wrong way”

KR Are you biting your tongue a little bit?
JT No, I wouldn’t say biting my tongue. I think I’ve tried to give them information that I usually don’t give. I’ve tried to be more professional with them. At times I was not, and I regret doing that. That’s what put me in trouble out there in Vancouver when I went down a hallway and I never should have [Tortorella tried to enter the Calgary Flames dressing room after the first period of a game in 2014]. In my mind, I was protecting my team. People always say I don’t like players and I treat them poorly. I don’t treat my players poorly. I push my players. It’s my job to make them better people and better players so that we’re a better team and a better organization. I will never stop doing that. And I think as guys get to know me, they want that. They want the honesty. It’s just being honest.

KR Is the public perception of you different than how you are?
JT Oh, sure.

KR I was a little scared to talk to you, to be honest.
JT Oh, no. But I can’t do anything about that. And I don’t want to chase perception, it’s too hard. Those top 10 lists [sports networks] sometimes have—if that’s what people want to think of me, I can’t change that. Because that is me in those situations. If people want to roll me up in a ball and say that’s who he is, I can’t change that. But for the people who really know me, they know me. This is a hard interview for me, and you’re going to end this pretty quickly because you’re talking too much about me.

KR Really?
JT This is the last question for you, Kristina. Out of the game, I’m private. So we’re done.

KR We’re done?
JT We’re done.

KR All right, well I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.
JT I’m not trying to be rude but I have to catch a plane.

Photo Credits

Illustration: Kagan Mcleod
Courtesy Tortorella Family
Jeff Vinnick/Getty