John Tortorella sat with his back to a piano, bushes waving in the wind outside large windows on a sunny day on his farm in Westchester County, N.Y. His salt-and-pepper goatee trimmed, his long hair perfect, his glasses an eloquent accessory to his presentation, he might have been an English lit professor Zooming a class on Keats to New England undergrads.
But Torts was so eager to leave his horses and dogs and return to the ice that all of his decorum melted away.
“I’ve been shoveling a lot of s— out here for the past eight or nine months, excuse my language.”
Then he promptly started shoveling more.
Tortorella spent much of his 51-minute introductory news conference Friday as the Flyers’ new head coach trying to paint himself as an evolved leader, a Renaissance man, as comfortable with today’s sports-psychology athlete as he has been with yesterday’s three-beers-and-a-chaser puck runners.
It was mostly pure manure.
Tortorella’s going to skate ‘em til they puke and ride ‘em til they break.
After four years of Torts uncensored, sensitive goalie Carter Hart might quit the game. Stubborn Sean Couturier, the team’s best player, might complain all the way to the top, where Bobby Clarke will always, it seems, reside, regardless of title. Ivan Provorov might defect to the East, and veteran Kevin Hayes might knock him out.
Travis Konecny might kill him.
There has seldom been a worse fit between coach and roster than this. Not that it can’t work. Tortorella is a superior coaching mind, a disciple of structure and defense and fitness and fight, as he should be; as all coaches in every sport should be.
If the Flyers man up — looking at you, James van Riemsdyk — this can be a much better team when the puck drops in October. If they don’t, Torts won’t last, his boss won’t last, the team will be imploded, and general manager Chuck Fletcher will have to find himself a farm, a shovel, and some freshly laid manure.
“He is the right coach, at this time, for the Philadelphia Flyers,” Fletcher said Friday.
No, he’s not. Fletcher isn’t the right general manager, either, but that’s not the issue at this moment. The issue is, the brashest coach in North American sports landed in the brashest city in North America, and he’s tasked with leading a group of unmotivated, self-involved, undertalented hockey players for a franchise that’s won one playoff series in the last decade and hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since Torts was flying down the left wing for Concord-Carlisle (Mass.) High.
This is gonna be fun.
Current Flyer and former Blue Jacket Cam Atkinson endorsed Tortorella’s way of doing things: “It all starts with how you practice.”
Tortorella was asked if his coaching style was too abrasive and whether his reputation was warranted.
“To me, it’s a myth,” he said.
It’s not a myth to everyone.
Brandon Dubinsky, who played eight seasons for Tortorella with the Rangers and Blue Jackets and once called his relationship with Tortorella a “s— show” (hockey dudes fixate on excrement), tweeted up a prayer for Flyers players when news of Tortorella’s hiring broke Thursday.
Tortorella got a four-year, $16 million deal, but don’t expect him to last all four. Think two, maybe 2½. There’s not enough talent or toughness or speed or smarts anywhere in this organization. Tortorella is a vanity hire. He’s in orange and black solely to placate the South Jersey faithful — fans who love the Flyers, the fighting, and fury. Fans who don’t come to the Wells Fargo Center anymore. Torts sells tickets, but his style won’t sell with this group of players.
He’s old-school the way Oxford and Cambridge are old-school; at 63, any application of analytics will be more perfunctory than proactive. As for the emotional intelligence that seems necessary for coaches to connect with players these days, there’s no question Tortorella is intelligent, and there’s ample evidence that he’s emotional, but he operates with about as much emotional intelligence as a chainsaw.
The Flyers keep making the same basic move: Hire a tough guy with a decent resumé, hope he gets more out of the players than is really there, watch him turn them against him, then fire him. That’s what happened with Peter Laviolette and Alain Vigneault. It’s what will happen to Tortorella.
That’s bad for the Flyers, but it will make good theater.
Consider that Tortorella’s initial strategy is simple: Take away the dressing room and make it his.
Tortorella illustrated his methods by reliving his experience with former Flyers forward and current NBC Sports Philadelphia analyst Scott Hartnell when he was hired by the Blue Jackets after the start of the 2015-16 season.
“Scottie Hartnell? I had to wrestle the room away from him in Columbus. I didn’t like the room when I went into Columbus. Him and I had wrestling matches about this,” Tortorella said, then added, proudly, “I benched Scottie.”
This Flyers’ dressing room belongs to Hayes. He holds court, and he’s the sheriff, and if I know it, Tortorella knows it. Entirely not coincidentally, when asked which players intrigue him, Hayes was the only player Tortorella singled out.
“I’m really interested in talking to Kevin. I think there’s more there. I think he’s a huge piece of the puzzle,” Tortorella said. “If I can help him and make him understand we’re going to get him to another level, what does he do for the Flyers organization?”
Buckle up, Hayesey.
It’s a process
Torts tried hard, but he couldn’t help himself.
He’d say things like, “I think players need to express themselves,” and how dialogue with today’s players is “the evolution of a coach” who should “maybe just stop and continue to listen.”
Then the old Torts — the real Torts — reasserted himself:
“There’s a fine line there, guys. You can’t allow it to run amok,” and “We may have a disagreement or two along the way,” and “There is going to be conflict.”
That’s the real Torts. The Torts that won a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay in 2004. This other Torts?
He’s just shoveling B.S.