PHILADELPHIA (AP)John Tortorella coaches the kind of Philadelphia Flyers team that can drive their fans to drink.
Maybe the players, too.
Feisty enough to try and fight his way into a visiting team’s locker room, Tortorella is poised enough to send his team a mission statement not through a heated diatribe, but with a handwritten letter.
Tortorella also builds team chemistry the old-fashioned way – especially when that team is projected to be among the worst in the NHL — by urging his players to go out and have a good time. It’s one reason why Tortorella hates traveling the night after a game to the next city. Tortorella wants to trade a silent bus ride or flight full of players with their heads buried in mobile devices for a team willing to spend a night out on the town out for a team meal, perhaps even a bit of carousing.
”Maybe have a few beers together,” Tortorella said ”Maybe even have a few too many beers. But come back the next day and play guilty. I think playing guilty is a big part of at least a pro sport I’ve coached in a long time. I think it’s kind of a lost art. We don’t get together as a group. It’s a team sport. I think you should go out together and maybe even get into a little bit of innocent trouble. Not bad trouble, innocent trouble along the way. I think that’s good for the camaraderie of the team.”
The Flyers, who last won a Stanley Cup in 1975, will try about anything to raise the bar for a franchise that once bullied its way into the heart of the Philly sports scene and now sits in irrelevancy.
They turned to the 64-year-old Tortorella, hoping his demanding, no-nonsense coaching style can lift the Flyers out of the NHL abyss and into, well, what exactly? The playoffs? Tortorella is sensible enough to soften expectations for a season that opens at home Thursday against New Jersey without a true star, a true bona fide prospect on the roster and without a solid reason for hope.
At least this season.
But as Tortorella scans the city landscape and sees the Phillies in the playoffs, the Eagles are undefeated the Union hailed as one of the top teams in MLS and the 76ers with championship aspirations — and all playing in front of rowdy, packed houses — their successes make him only more determined to add his team to the collection of winners.
”I don’t want to slide under the radar. I want us to fill the building,” Tortorella said. ”I want us to get to where the other teams are in this city. What people feel, what they say, what they think, we need to ignore that. That’s certainly not being disrespectful to the people. They have a right to feel what they feel. I just think we need to shut our mouths, put our head down and work, and try to get back to a standard of what it is to be a Philadelphia Flyer. That’s the challenge. That’s what excites me about having the opportunity.”
Some $16 million in salary over the next four seasons is a sweet incentive to return to the bench. But Tortorella could have coasted into retirement or continued to enjoy his broadcasting gig. His resume was about as good as it gets in the NHL: a Stanley Cup winner with Tampa Bay in 2004; a conference final in 2012 with the Rangers; the master motivator who lifted the Columbus Blue Jackets from perennial losers before he was hired into four straight seasons in the playoffs.
”I know firsthand that the guys in the locker room are great guys. They’re all super excited to have Torts,” said Flyers forward Cam Atkinson, who played for Tortorella in Columbus. ”At the same time, nervous because they know what to expect out of him. I keep telling them he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization, just like he did for Columbus.”
The warts dot Tortorella’s resume, too, and he doesn’t dodge his reputation. He’s lost his cool with fans. He confronts the media. He pushes his players — from fourth liners to high-priced stars – to their breaking point, sometimes to the point of broken relationships. He was still an AHL coach in 1997 when he hit a fan during a game.
Tortorella survived. And thrived. Torts won. He wore out his welcome. He comes back for more.
”I tell my players, be who you are. I’m always going to be who I am,” he said this week in an interview with The Associated Press. ”You know, I’ve certainly made mistakes along the way where maybe my intensity gets the better of me. It’s hard for me after games right away when you’re in the fight down there to have to come to talk to (the media) 10 minutes after. It is what it is. I’m honest. I’m going to be honest all the time. I don’t know anything else as far as being honest with the players, honest with you guys. That’s not going to change.”
Tortorella, 673-541-37-132 over almost 20 seasons, has changed, such as opening the locker room to cameras for a training camp docu-series called ” The Standard.” The Boston native has had to keep up with the times as players evolved and old-school methodologies — he backtracked on his stance on athletes who protest during the national anthem — have been weeded out of the league.
”I think where I’m trying to evolve is, I think with today’s athlete, you need to let them speak,” Tortorella said. ”You need to let them have a piece of it, also, in how we’re going about it. I think that’s so important now as a coach, it’s communication with them and allowing them to have a stand also, to speak with you. That’s where I think I’ve made a big change.”
Tortorella still communicates with four-letter words and, let’s call it a spirit, responsible for the YouTube video, ” 6 minutes of John Tortorella Angry Moments.” But he put pen to paper for a note on what it takes to be professional in the NHL that was sealed in an envelope and delivered to each Flyer’s mailbox. Best, he said, to avoid the myriad emails, texts and repetitive speeches that often mangle the message.
”I vouched heavily for him to get the job,” Atkinson said. ”And then when he did get the job, he’s all fired up. And I was on the phone, I’m on speaker, my wife’s sitting next to me and she’s like, `I can’t wait to get that handwritten letter.’ He goes, `Oh, it’s funny, Nat, because I’m actually writing it as we speak.”’
Tortorella inherited a team that went 25-46-11 and finished last in the Metropolitan Division. Top center Sean Couturier is out with another serious back injury. Defenseman Ryan Ellis’ career might be over. There is no team captain. Atkinson, last season’s team MVP, will miss the opener with an unspecified injury.
General manager Chuck Fletcher made only one major offseason move — hiring the coach nicknamed Torts.
”We believe John Tortorella is going to help bring a harder-to-play-against mentality for our group, is going to improve our defensive structure and cut down on our goals against,” Fletcher said. ”Frankly, it starts with that.”
And maybe last call.
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