‘That’s his way of motivating’: John Tortorella’s players say his tough-love approach comes from a good place
The perception is that Tortorella is a coach for whom most players hate playing. After talking to Cam Atkinson and Scott Hartnell, that couldn't be further from the truth.
Second in a two-part series examining how new Flyers head coach John Tortorella is perceived.
Before John Tortorella even set foot in the Columbus Blue Jackets locker room in October 2015 to replace Todd Richards as head coach, Blue Jackets forward Scott Hartnell thought he knew everything he needed to know about his new head coach.
Hartnell had seen the viral video clips, just like everyone else — the blowups at reporters in postgame scrums. He had heard about how his hard practices were and how demanding he was of players during games.
“We were all a little bit ... I don’t know if distraught is the right word, but just really anxious,” recalled Hartnell, who previously played for the Flyers.
Of course, Hartnell wasn’t the only one with those same preconceived notions. When former Blue Jackets and current Flyers winger Cam Atkinson learned that Columbus had hired Tortorella, Atkinson’s visceral reaction was “Oh, [crap].”
But more than six years later, as Atkinson sat down with Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher for his 2021-22 exit interview, he vouched for Tortorella — unprompted — for the team’s head coaching vacancy. That vote of confidence came in spite of several arguments over the years with Tortorella. It all led Atkinson to a realization about Tortorella, who officially became the Flyers’ head coach on June 17.
“There’s no BS with Torts,” Atkinson said. “He tells it how it is and he holds you accountable. He demands a lot out of you, but he’s doing it out of the goodness of his heart because he really respects you as a person, but wants you to be the best you can be as a player. I think that’s one thing that I really loved about Torts when he coached Columbus. He pushed me to my limits.
“I know he’s going to push me again, he already told me he’s going to push me, and I can’t wait.”
Atkinson learned just how hard Tortorella could push his players from former Tampa Bay Lightning winger Martin St. Louis, who won a Stanley Cup with Tortorella in 2004. St. Louis was the first person to call Atkinson once the news broke that Tortorella was headed to Columbus.
Both undersize at 5-foot-8, St. Louis shared with Atkinson a familiar piece of advice for thriving under Tortorella.
“He was just like, ‘If you work your [tail] off, and put the effort in, you’re going to get rewarded,’” Atkinson said. “Obviously, your skill set will take over, but just put the work in.’ I took that and I ran with it. But it’s also been my mantra my whole life. Being a smaller player, I’ve always had to outwork you and prove to you that I’m a good player.”
When Tortorella set foot in the Blue Jackets’ locker room for the first time, Hartnell recalled, he instantly demanded respect. Captivating and intense, Tortorella told his players that he was going to get them into shape and turn the mentality of a losing organization around.
Then, he backed up his words with a high-volume skating practice.
“It wasn’t a bag skate, but it sure felt like a bag skate practice,” Hartnell said. “I guess we were out of shape.”
Memories of grueling training camp practices are seared into Hartnell’s mind. During the first on-ice day of training camp the year after Tortorella was hired, the Blue Jackets played an intrasquad scrimmage. None of the players finished their checks in an effort to avoid hurting one another.
Tortorella didn’t like that. He walked down from his spot in the stands, blew his whistle, came out onto the ice, and scolded his team for not hitting hard enough. When the puck dropped at center ice and play resumed, Atkinson showed Tortorella he took his words to heart.
Atkinson “just came flying at me and rocked me right on my butt,” Hartnell said. “It just kind of dialed me into, OK, we’re playing for real. I got up and I think I went and ran somebody and Torts was like, ‘That’s the way I want to play.’”
Those intense practices prepared the Blue Jackets for Tortorella’s system, which puts an emphasis on structured defense and a stifling forecheck.
But while defense is the engine that drives Tortorella’s system, Atkinson disputed the perception that defense is his sole focus.
“As soon as you get to the offensive zone, you can do whatever the hell you want,” Atkinson said. “I think he just got that bad rap of, ‘Oh, you just have to play defense, and you have to block shots,’ and don’t get me wrong, you have to do all those things. But if you do those things, usually you’re in and out of the zone quick and it leads to good offense and more offensive zone time.”
‘His way of motivating’
Over time, Atkinson grew to understand the importance of playing responsible defense under Tortorella. But that wasn’t the case at first, and Atkinson paid the price.
Atkinson went through a stretch one season when he wasn’t scoring and thus was cheating, trying to get to the offensive zone prematurely. Tortorella decided to make an example of Atkinson and made him a healthy scratch, leading to a spirited argument between the two. But the next day, they both moved on and the message was received.
“It’s good to clear the air with anybody,” Atkinson said. “And he loves that. He loves having an open room, having that discussion, having a little bit of conflict within the team. That’s what builds you closer.”
Hartnell experienced Tortorella’s wrath while on the bench during a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Three shifts into the game, Hartnell heard Tortorella whisper in his ear: You have one more shift. And if you don’t have a good one, you’re done for the night.
During his next shift, Hartnell made a big hit on the forecheck to win the puck back in the lead-up to a goal. When Hartnell skated back to the bench, Tortorella greeted him with a slap on the back and an “attaboy.”
“That’s his way of motivating,” Hartnell said. “If he didn’t say that, I probably would have struggled and got sat, where he challenged me and I came out on the right side of it.”
Atkinson watched Tortorella change the entire dynamic of the Blue Jackets organization with his passion, starting with the locker room and working outward into the city of Columbus. Tortorella became both his hard-nosed coach and a friend, as they bonded over their military connections (Atkinson’s cousins and Tortorella’s son Dominick).
A year after Tortorella was let go by Columbus and Atkinson was traded to the Flyers, the duo will reunite in Philadelphia. Atkinson doesn’t suspect Tortorella has changed all that much as a coach even after working at ESPN this past season.
“Just seeing him on TV, eating a chicken parm and stuff like that, it’s just funny,” Atkinson said. “Now, he’s going to be a head coach and it’s not always going to be rainbows and butterflies. I’m sure we’re going to get into it a couple of times, but I’m looking forward to it.”