TORONTO – It took the opposing coach of all people for someone inside Scotiabank Arena to stand up and defend Sheldon Keefe with anything resembling passion.
As a reporter prefaced a question Wednesday evening about the heat the Toronto Maple Leafs bench boss is taking amid his group’s underwhelming start, Tortorella cut the reporter off before he could reach the question mark.
“You guys don’t know anything. See, I coach against Sheldon. I think coaches know other coaches,” Tortorella began, eyes fixed on the Toronto media. “You guys don’t what he’s done for that team. I’ve watched from afar. I’ve coached him. We’ve had conversations as a young coach in this league.
“You guys chuck darts at him because you want some results. I guess, it is. It’s always the coach that gets the darts chucked at him. I know in watching him and coaching against him, I think he’s a terrific coach.
“I hope he jams it to you all, quite honestly. Not tonight. But I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
Keefe and Tortorella go way back, and the coaching fraternity runs deep.
Way back in November 2019, when Keefe secured his NHL promotion upon the firing of Mike Babcock, he received a nice text message from the man who’d coached him through two thirds of his own NHL playing career.
At the turn of the century, Tortorella made it tough for a young Keefe to earn minutes on the Tampa Bay Lightning, an emerging contender. Hard lessons and keen observations left enough of an imprint on Keefe, 42, that he refers to Tortorella as “the foundation” of his coaching methodology.
“When I think back on the coaches I played for, I was very fortunate to be a part of the Tampa organization at a time when they were looking to rebuild and find an identity and grow,” Keefe said. “I didn’t get to play on that  Stanley Cup championship team in Tampa, but I was there through the process of that team growing from one year to the next to the next, eventually to the point where it was too good for me to play on.”
The two men clashed here during Keefe’s first taste behind an NHL postseason bench, inside the 2020 bubble, and Tortorella’s Blue Jackets ousted Keefe’s favoured Leafs in a tense five-game series.
Since that series, Keefe has led the Leafs to a North Division regular-season title (2021) and guided his club to a franchise-best 115-point campaign (2022).
Tortorella arrives in town as the motivator of a depleted Philadelphia Flyers roster, and he’s well aware of the scrutiny Keefe is under during Toronto’s 4-4-2 start.
It’s always the coach that takes the heat, right?
“It’s part of our being, and I’m not complaining about it,” Tortorella said.
“But I think he’s a really good coach. And you don’t have a clue what he does for that team.”