John Tortorella acknowledges ‘there’s some work to do’ but is excited for long-awaited ‘opportunity’ with the Flyers
“I’m not going to sit here and say that we’re going to be Stanley Cup contenders next year,” John Tortorella said. “I know there’s some work to do.”
In 2004, new Flyers coach John Tortorella passed through Philadelphia as the coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final. At the time, he was in just his fifth season as an NHL head coach.
Throughout the seven-game series in which the Lightning beat the Flyers en route to their eventual 2004 Stanley Cup victory, he recalled being struck by Philadelphia.
“I remember telling my wife, and I told Chuck [Fletcher, Flyers general manager] this story, ‘Man, that is a place I would love an opportunity to be and coach,’” Tortorella said on Friday at an introductory Zoom press conference alongside Fletcher. “The passion of the people, the building, everything about the city. It was really neat for me.”
Eighteen years later with a Cup, two Jack Adams awards, three division titles, and two conference final appearances on his resume, Tortorella turned that aspiration into reality. Friday morning, the Flyers named him the 23rd coach in franchise history. He agreed to a deal with the team on Thursday that would pay him $16 million over the next four years, a source told The Inquirer.
The notoriously fiery bench boss who turns 64 next week has a reputation for being tough on his players and holding them to a high standard, mirroring the passion of a Flyers fan base eager to see their team’s 47-year Stanley Cup drought come to an end. Fletcher, who led the Flyers’ coaching search alongside the aid of an outside search firm, stressed that Tortorella is the right fit for a team in need of accountability and structure.
“Players will respond if they know you’re demanding, but you’re demanding in a sense that you care about them,” Fletcher said. “You want what’s best for them. You’re not being demanding for yourself, you’re being demanding to make the player better, to make the team better. And nobody personifies that more than John Tortorella.”
Tortorella also addressed the notion that he is too hard on players.
“I’m not in the business to embarrass people, I’m not in the business to run people out of organizations. ... My job is to push athletes to levels that they are not used to getting to. And I am going to do that,” he said. “I’ve made mistakes, I’ve pushed too hard at certain times and I’ve made mistakes along the way. But that is my job and I’m going to do it fairly and I’m always going to do it honestly.”
After spending 20 seasons combined at the helm of the Lightning, the New York Rangers, the Vancouver Canucks, and the Columbus Blue Jackets, Tortorella will take his talents to Broad Street in an effort to revive a lowly Flyers team that went 25-46-11 last season and missed the playoffs for a second straight year.
Call it a rebuild or a retool, the Boston native doesn’t care. Tortorella is just ready to put the time and effort into making the Flyers “a hard team to play against.” That’s a quality that Fletcher has long claimed to prioritize, yet the team has not displayed it consistently on the ice.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that we’re going to be Stanley Cup contenders next year,” Tortorella said. “I get that. I know there’s some work to do. ... That’s what I want to do.”
That works starts now, as Tortorella rings up players to introduce himself, share his vision, and plant the roots of a working relationship ahead of training camp. He already spoke to second-line center Kevin Hayes, who faced a tumultuous season dealing with the death of his brother Jimmy and multiple surgeries, most recently to treat a groin infection.
Out of all of the players expected to return to the Flyers next season, Tortorella said he’s most eager to meet Hayes in person for a discussion and to work with him to reach his potential.
“I want to try to help him, because if I can help him and make him understand that we’re going to try to get him to another level, what does he do for the Flyers organization up the middle of the ice?” Tortorella said. “I’ve watched him from afar. And there’s more there.”
These conversations are the product of personal growth for Tortorella. Over time across various coaching stints, Tortorella has learned the importance of listening to his players. He acknowledged that coaches, himself included, can get tunnel vision, fixated on handling business the way they see fit.
But Tortorella understands that today’s athlete doesn’t tick the same way athletes did 20 years ago, and he has tailored his coaching style to be more of a “two-way street” that honors conversation with his players.
“I’m looking forward to listening,” Tortorella said. “It was something I was a little bit stubborn [about] back in the day. But I think I’ve learned, and I’ve learned watching other coaches, and I’ve just learned through the progression of seeing what the athlete is.”
Tortorella is well-aware of his reputation as being the “defensive guy.” Some former players including Blue Jackets winger Patrik Laine have criticized Tortorella’s system for not allowing for offensive creativity. Tortorella said he prioritizes teaching structure away from the puck, but he understands the need to allow offensive players to express themselves.
He’s not going to turn a skater with a penchant for scoring or creating plays into a checker. However, Tortorella expects those players to show the coaching staff and their teammates, especially goalie Carter Hart, that they’re willing to put in the work away from the puck.
“I think that’s what develops the right camaraderie of a hockey club, and it develops the right attitude of a hockey club, and how hard you have to be,” he said. “And I think it starts with your top guys.”
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In addition to meeting with his players over the next few weeks, Tortorella will also work with Fletcher to hire assistant coaches. Tortorella is already certain he wants an assistant who specializes on the power play and will work with the offensive-minded players.
Those decisions will be made in due time. But for now, after a year away from the NHL coaching scene in which he served as an ESPN analyst, Tortorella is looking forward to diving back in behind the Flyers’ bench.
“I got to watch other teams, other coaches, other players, and learn that way,” he said. “And now I get to coach this damn team, the Flyers. I’m so lucky to spend a year away and come to this organization, an organization that I’ve truly respected.”