John Tortorella really missed coaching.
Well, he left a job as an ESPN hockey analyst to become the head coach of a Philadelphia
Flyers team that finished with the second-worst record in franchise history last season, a team that did little in the offseason to
improve its fate.
Tortorella likes the challenge. He was desperate to get back behind a bench, desperate to get back to his element.
“Missed it terribly,” he said.
Surprisingly, he said becoming the Flyers’ coach had been on his mind for almost two decades.
In one sense, he picked a bad time for his wish to come true. The team looks mediocre at best, as does the farm system.
Then again, the Flyers would be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s 61-point disaster, a season in which they had an inordinate amount of injuries to key players, such as Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, and Ryan Ellis.
“It’s a great challenge to get the organization back on the right rail,” said Tortorella, who signed a four-year deal that pays him $4 million per season. “And as I’ve said from the get-go, it’s always been an organization that I’ve respected. We had some wars with them.”
Before being hired by the Flyers, Tortorella was a head coach with Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers, Vancouver, and Columbus, compiling a 673-541-37-13 record over 20 seasons. He won a Stanley Cup with Tampa in 2004, had some very good seasons with the Rangers, and molded the Blue Jackets into a playoff contender despite a so-so roster.
So there is hope for the Flyers.
“I just want to be part of something and try to get some success,” said Tortorella, a two-time Coach of the Year who is the second-winningest American-born coach in NHL history. “I want to develop some of the youth of the team and try to get us to play the right way as a team.”
That didn’t happen last year when the Flyers were near or at the bottom of the league in goals scored (2.56 per game, 31st out of 32 teams) and goals allowed (3.59; 27th). They were last in the NHL on the power play (12.6%; 32nd) and 26th on the penalty kill (75.7% success rate).
“We have a lot of work to do,” Tortorella said.
With little cap space, the Flyers made few off-season moves. Their biggest addition was defenseman Tony DeAngelo, who is expected to quarterback the power play. The Flyers, who open their season Oct. 13 against visiting New Jersey, need Couturier and Hayes to rebound from injuries. (Couturier was out indefinitely in training camp after re-injuring his back.) It would also help immensely if some of the young players like Owen Tippett, Morgan Frost, Wade Allison, Noah Cates, Tanner Laczynski, and Cam York blossomed.
Tortorella, a Boston native, said “developing a team concept and a structure that they understand” is foremost on his mind. “I just want to see growth. I don’t want to miss any steps as far as building that growth until you get to a kind of crescendo of just total belief in what we’re doing; total belief in who we are. That’s a process.”
Tortorella, 64, is the oldest new coach in Flyers history. He said this will be the last stop in his coaching career.
He is a paradox of sorts.
On the bench and in the locker room, he is fiery and outspoken, someone who is demanding and, at times, sarcastic – especially with the media, though he seems to have mellowed a bit.
Off the ice, he is a dog and horse lover, and someone who is deeply philanthropic. Tortorella and his wife, Christine, have four dogs (pit bull mixes that were rescued) and three horses.
“We’re like a traveling circus,” he said.
He and his wife recently purchased a farm in South Jersey to raise the animals.
The man they call “Torts” said he sometimes wonders what is more important to him and his family – hockey or animals.
He and his wife started the John and Christine Tortorella Foundation for Giving Back. The mission: improve the lives of children and animals and protect the environment.
The foundation promotes animal rights and has found homes for numerous rescue and foster dogs.
Tortorella is especially fond of pit bulls, or “pitties,” as he calls them.
“I know they have kind of a [bad] connotation for what kind of animal they are,” he said. “We kind of focus on those types of dogs because they’re stuck in shelters all over the world. They’re such great animals. We as people screw things up.”
Tortorella is eager to identify with the fans, many of whom are disillusioned by the Flyers’ decade of futility. They have won one playoff series over the last ten years.
That has left the fans bitter.
“And they probably have a right to be,” he said.
He wants the Flyers’ on-ice demeanor to emulate the people in the blue-collar city.
“We’re going to try to join with the city and have the identity of the city – a hard-working group, an honest group,” he said. “Our group is going to show up every day and try to do it the right way – and give you effort,” he said. “That’s something we can control.”
His ex-players say he can get under their skin, but it’s because he cares and is trying to light a fire and bring out the best in them.
“He’s a character. He’s demanding. Mentally, he’ll tear you down to nothing, then he’ll build [you and] everybody up,” Scott Hartnell, a former Flyer who played for Tortorella in Columbus, said on a Nasty Knuckles podcast. “It’s like you’re a piece of the puzzle here and a piece there.”
Hartnell called Tortorella a “maniac” at one point. Seconds later, he said he was “one of my favorite coaches. I have a lot of respect for him – just the way he turned us around so quickly.”
If he turns the Flyers from the NHL’s second-worst Eastern Conference team into a playoff spot, well, he might win his third Coach of the Year award.
That said, Tortorella, the 23rd coach in the Flyers’ history, is known to get the most out of his players. His Columbus teams weren’t overly talented but made the playoffs four straight times at one point.
Tom Sestito, another former Flyers winger who played for Tortorella in Columbus, is a believer in the coach.
“Torts will be loved by his players in Philly,” Sestito said. “I played for a few of the top coaches in the NHL, and he is the best by far. You always will know where you stand with him.”
He called Tortorella a “players’ coach” and said he “doesn’t care if you’re a first-line guy or a fourth-line guy. He treats everyone the same. Everyone has a role with him and knows where you stand. If you’re doing your part, you’re going to be on great terms with him.”
Let the Torts era begin.