PHILADELPHIA (AP) — John Tortorella coaches the kind of Philadelphia Flyers team that can get his fans drinking.
Maybe the players too.
Feisty enough to try and force his way into a visiting team’s locker room, Tortorella is ready enough to send his team a mission statement not through a heated rant, but with a handwritten letter.
Tortorella also builds team chemistry the old-fashioned way — especially when this team should be among the worst in the NHL — by urging his players to get out there and have fun. This is one of the reasons why Tortorella hates traveling at night after a game to the next town. Tortorella wants to trade a quiet bus ride or a flight full of players with their heads buried in mobile devices for a team willing to spend a night on the town for a team meal, maybe even a little celebration.
“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 one professional sport in which I coached for 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 two should date and maybe even attract each other innocent trouble. No bad trouble, innocent trouble along the way. I think it’s good for the camaraderie of the team.”
The Flyers, who last won the Stanley Cup in 1975, will try anything to raise the bar for a franchise that once worked its way into the heart of Philadelphia’s sports scene and is now out. about.
They turned to the 64-year-old Tortorella, hoping his demanding and pragmatic coaching style can lift the Flyers out of NHL abyss and into what exactly? The playoffs? Tortorella makes sense enough to soften expectations of a season that opens at home Thursday against New Jersey without a real star, a real bona fide prospect on the roster and no solid reason to 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 are hailed as one of the best teams in MLS and the 76ers with championship aspirations – and all play in front of packed and rowdy halls – their successes only make him more determined to add his team to the collection of winners.
“I don’t want to go 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 have to ignore it. It’s certainly not disrespecting the people. They have a right to feel what they feel. I just think we have to shut our mouths and put our heads down and work, and try to get back to the norm of what it’s like to be a Flyer of Philadelphia. That’s the challenge. That’s what excites me to have the opportunity.”
Some $16 million in salary over the next four seasons is a sweet incentive to get back on the bench. But Tortorella could have retired or continued enjoying his broadcast gig. His resume was about as good as it was 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 being hired for four straight playoff seasons.
“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 from him. I keep telling them that he’s a guy who’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization, just like he did. for Columbus.”
Warts also dot Tortorella’s resume, and he doesn’t shy away from his reputation. He lost his temper with the fans. He confronts the media. He pushes his players – from fourth understudy to high-priced stars – to breaking point, sometimes to the point of breaking relationships. He was still coaching the AHL in 1997 when he hit a fan during a game.
Tortorella survived. And thrived. The wrongs won. He has exhausted his welcome. He’s coming back for more.
“I tell my players, be who you are. I will always be who I am,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. “You know I’ve definitely made mistakes along the way where maybe my intensity gets the better of me. It’s hard for me after games straight away when you’re in the fight there from having to come and talk (to the media) 10 minutes later. That’s what it is. I’m honest. I’m going to be honest all the time. I don’t know anything else about being honest with the players, honest with you guys. That’s not going to change.”
Tortorella, 673-541-37-132 over nearly 20 seasons, has changed, like the locker room opening to cameras for a docu-series training camp titled “The Standard.” The Boston native had to keep pace as players evolved and old-school methodologies — he backtracked on athletes protesting during the national anthem — were knocked out of the league.
“I think where I’m trying to grow, I think with today’s athlete you have to let them do the talking,” Tortorella said. “You have to give them some of that, too, in the way we do it. I think that’s so important now as a coach, it’s communication with them and also allowing them to take a stand, to talk with you. That’s where I think I made a big change.”
Tortorella still communicates in 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 a pro in the NHL that was sealed in an envelope and delivered to every Flyer’s mailbox. Best, he said, is to avoid the myriad of repetitive emails, texts and speeches that often distort the message.
“I strongly vouched for him to get the job,” Atkinson said. “And then when he got the job, he’s all excited. And I was on the phone, I’m on speakerphone, my wife is sitting next to me and she’s like, ‘I can’t wait to get this letter. handwritten. ‘ He’s like, ‘Oh, that’s funny, Nat, because I’m writing it right now.'”
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 could be over. There is no team captain. Atkinson, the team’s most valuable player last season, will miss the opener with an unspecified injury.
General manager Chuck Fletcher made only one major move this offseason: hiring the coach nicknamed Torts.
“We think John Tortorella is going to help create a tougher mentality to play against for our group, improve our defensive structure and reduce our goals against,” Fletcher said. “Honestly, it starts with that.”
And maybe the last call.