VOORHEES, N.J. — Welcome to the home of the Philadelphia Flyers, a team coached by a man labelled a dinosaur by some in the hockey world.
I don’t view John Tortorella that way but can understand why people do. He’s got a nasty bark — in an era that mostly features players who have practically never been yelled at before — and it’s generally assumed his bite is even worse because of it. The 64-year-old definitely presents as more old-school than some of his contemporaries, no matter how progressive he might actually be on certain fronts.
So when Tortorella does stuff like ban the use of iPads on the Flyers’ bench, it appears, at least on the surface, like he’s certainly living up to his reputation.
When that decision came to light five weeks ago, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the reaction to it. I found it ironic Tortorella was getting torched on social media for doing this when Martin St. Louis, who’s widely considered one of the most nurturing, new-school coaches in the game, had instituted a similar rule not long after first stepping onto the Montreal Canadiens‘ bench.
St. Louis didn’t outright ban iPads on the bench in February of 2022. He just forbade his players from using them there, except for during the three television timeouts per period.
Yet, I don’t think anyone thought of the 47-year-old as a miser when listening to his response to a question about it after Thursday’s practice.
“There’s a lot of stuff that happens during play that you should look at the game and understand,” St. Louis said. “When you jump on the ice, how long the defenceman’s been on the ice? Do they need a change? Who’s fresh? What about the other team? There’s just so much information out there that you need to have to have a feel for the game, and if you’re constantly coming off the ice and looking at the iPad, to me, that’s selfish.”
No one would argue with that logic or consider it to be an antiquated way of thinking.
But when Tortorella made his decision for that reason — and another really relevant one I’ll get to in a second — he was asked if it fed the perception that he’s “old-school.”
He snapped back in classic fashion, saying, “I don’t give a flying s*** how I’m perceived.”
“I really don’t, because it’s my job to coach the team,” Tortorella continued. “If I’m in the business to try to make everybody happy and be perceived (positively), that’s a tough way to live, and I really don’t pay too much attention to it … I’m kind of locked into what is best for the team, and I have to make those calls.”
What you can’t ignore about this one to eliminate the use of iPads is the other reason Tortorella gave because the thinking behind it is anything but old-school.
He didn’t just ban the use of iPads on the bench to dock the players’ screen time and keep them focused on what’s in front of them. He also took the iPad out of his own hands and those of his assistant coaches.
“With the iPad, you’re pointing out everything during a game; it’s almost like you have to (as a coach) because we just saw it. And we overcoach,” Tortorella said. “I think we get in the way sometimes and we’re clouding their head with what just happened, instead of let’s try to take care of business on the next shift.”
St. Louis didn’t have to say he shares that opinion.
Since this season began, he’s talked a great deal about not wanting to overcoach his players, often saying he’d rather coach trends than one-off mistakes.
Meanwhile, both St. Louis and Tortorella could be seen as trendsetters on this point. A week after the Flyers’ coach, who might have been borrowing from the Canadiens’ coach, made his decision on iPads public, Vegas Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy was also talking about limiting iPad use to television timeouts.
Nobody thinks of Cassidy as a dinosaur.
Why St. Louis loves Torts
As I was passing by St. Louis, who was entertaining broadcasters towards the end of their pregame chat in Toronto before Montreal’s game against the Maple Leafs last Saturday, Tortorella’s name came up.
He did because TVA’s Felix Seguin was asking about Nick Suzuki’s elevated ice time, and colleague Renaud Lavoie chimed in and reminded St. Louis about how Tortorella was trotting him, Vincent Lecavalier and Vaclav Prospal for what seemed like half of every game in Tampa Bay’s 2007 Stanley Cup playoff series against the New Jersey Devils.
Lavoie recalled Tortorella being asked about it in the moment and responding, “There’s nowhere in the rulebook that says I can’t play them that much,” and everyone began laughing.
St. Louis, who averaged 28:07 in those six games — only one of them went to overtime — then quizzed Lavoie, Seguin, Patrick Lalime, Elliotte Friedman and me about it.
I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this:
“Who was I matched against,” St. Louis asked.
“Patrick Elias,” said Friedman.
“No, it was (shutdown specialist) John Madden,” St. Louis said.
Then he asked, “So why was Torts playing us that much?”
“To get you more shifts away from Madden,” I responded.
“No. It was to keep Madden’s line on the ice more while their top players were burning on the bench about playing less,” St. Louis said.
“Torts was great like that,” he added.
If you want a sample of St. Louis borrowing from him, he’s not much into matchups either — probably for this precise reason.
Another reason would be, as St. Louis acknowledged, NHL teams are no longer structured to have a strict checking line.
As he pointed out, most of them have a top line, a middle six, and a fourth that’s more used for energy and offensive-zone time than checking.
Anyway, as we got back to the subject of how St. Louis was playing so much under Tortorella and loving it, he shared more.
“For whatever reason, there were nights where I’d get on the ice and feel like I could play half the game, and I told Torts I’d let him know when I felt that way,” he said.
“Would he play you that much when you did?” Friedman asked.
“Every time,” St. Louis said.
Coming back to the iPad
Not using it isn’t much of an adjustment for Rafael Harvey-Pinard, who said it isn’t an option available in the American Hockey League, where he spent most of his season before coming up 13 games ago.
The 24-year-old, who has seven goals and 10 points, said he fully endorses the rule St. Louis made.
“If I was coming back to the bench and constantly looking at it, I’d be missing what’s going on in the game,” Harvey-Pinard said. “So that’s a good rule.”
When the TV timeout rolls around, he is usually sitting next to Suzuki, who is known to use the iPad a bit more frequently than some of his other teammates might.
Harvey-Pinard said he’s happy Suzuki does.
“He has experience. When he tells me he would’ve made a different play than I made, I listen,” he said. “He’s a smart player, and it’s not for nothing that he’s got the contract he has, is on the top line, is the captain of the Montreal Canadiens. He shares a lot of insight with me.”
Together, they’ll review the opposing penalty kills in-game to see where they can exploit coverage.
But Harvey-Pinard said they’ll generally be focused on what they could’ve done better on a given play to establish better chemistry together.
He also said he’s happy to do it when he’s not watching the game to pick up essential cues he’d otherwise miss.
“I’m constantly analyzing the game and looking at other players’ tendencies,” Harvey-Pinard said.
That’s the way St. Louis wants it.
Harvey-Pinard just needs to keep doing what he’s doing
And we’re not talking about the scoring.
Harvey-Pinard doesn’t expect to be putting up 50-goal seasons at this level. He’s not under any illusions about what he is and isn’t capable of, and he’s not worried about what might happen if the points stop piling up at the same rate they have been.
“I know what I need to do to succeed here,” he said.
St. Louis said Harvey-Pinard is doing it.
“I think Harvey-Pinard is a player who contributes every game, whether he scores or not, because he’s a responsible player,” the coach started. “He’s a player we can put on the ice in any situation. He’s also capable of playing up and down the lineup, on the power play and on the penalty kill. He’s a very versatile player.
“It’s not like if Harvey-Pinard stops producing at the same level, he wouldn’t belong in the NHL. There’s always ups and downs. The thing you want to make sure of with HP is he always keeps his foot on the pedal because then he can contribute whether it’s producing or doing things defensively.”