Happy 55th birthday, John Tortorella. Older, yes; wiser, maybe; gentler, well, that is to be seen.
When Tortorella was first interviewed by the Vancouver Canucks, two weeks ago, it seemed like a crazy ruse, more along the lines of team president/general manager Mike Gillis interviewing everyone available – as he said he would – rather than the fired firebrand being a true contender for the role. On first glance, to most observers, Tortorella looked like a terrible fit for Vancouver – which a number of people still maintain.
But on closer inspection, and reflection, Tortorella – who turned 55 on Monday – may bring exactly the required elements to a hockey team that has badly underperformed in the playoffs two consecutive seasons. The team owner, billionaire Francesco Aquilini, and Gillis, obviously think this is the case for the man they’ve handed the reins, a hiring expected to be made official at an 1 p.m. PT press conference at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Tuesday.
Much of the sound and fury surrounding Tortorella is, at least to an extent, hyperbole, a YouTube pastiche of various explosions over a decade that when strung together paint the caricature of an angry man. Bark angrily, or curse, at someone once a month and, on YouTube, it seems like it happens every day. His appearance on HBO’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic in 2011-12 certainly bolstered his foul-mouthed, smoke-spewing-out-of-his-ears legend, particularly a scene of his repeatedly cursing at his players in the locker room.
Tortorella, in one way, is painted as an outsized character because relative to his peers – the even-keeled Alain Vigneault, say – he is an outlier. Coaches in the National Hockey League are not unlike most of the players: boring. It’s a cold game, in the words of a thoughtful essay last year, and it does not pay to be colourful.
So a guy like Tortorella stands out much more so than he would otherwise.
Yes, he is bombastic. And, yes, he values shot blocking. But are they his defining characteristics? They are the headlines – but there is nuance, too. Also, men, and hockey coaches, adapt, as situations change, as they get older, learning from the past. And do not discount a surprise firing – like his ejection from New York less than a month ago – to spur a person to pause, to reflect, and recalibrate.
Media relations seem to be a focal point of the perceived fit in Vancouver – though whether media relations is a truly important measure is highly debatable. Gillis last Friday afternoon, speaking on Team 1040, the team’s radio broadcaster, acknowledged that a reasonable temperament in a market such as Vancouver is important, “where we’re under a microscope all the time.” Moving to New York from Tampa Bay, for Tortorella, was one thing. Vancouver is quite another, where the Canucks dominate attention, a world away from the Rangers, a second-tier name in their city, and not even close to being the biggest team in their own building.
Because of intense nature of the Vancouver market, playing nice(r) with reporters is, presumably, a condition to which Tortorella agreed, given that he faced unemployment for the 2013-14 season. Further, being a loudmouth coach with reporters shouldn't be totally discounted as some sort of evil. Tortorella isn’t just a blowhard. He thinks about his players. It’s not unlike retired Canadian Football League legend Don Matthews, whose bombast with reporters was appreciated by his players.
“He was so loud and obnoxious to everybody else, that he made himself the target,” Doug Flutie told The Globe last year of playing for Matthews. “The players, we would just sit back and relax. If you played against Don, you couldn’t stand him, but if he was your coach, you absolutely loved him.”
Then there is Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers goalie who was widely believed to be among the malcontents whose upset with Tortorella led to the coach’s firing. But last week, Lundqvist insisted it was not true and instead praised the deposed bench boss: “Torts and I had a great relationship. It was exciting and refreshing to play for him. I never had a coach challenge me the way he did, in a good way.”
On the ice, Tortorella is more recently known for the defensive shell strategy – backed by arguably the best goaltender in hockey – and the plan, of course, features blocked shots. The nuance here is it was part of the ethos, but not the singular ethos, as the Rangers ranked 6th (2012-13), 4th and 4th, over the past three seasons, compared with Vancouver at 27th, 27th and 25th, according to numbers on NHL.com. The gap in rank looks like a huge difference – but it’s not really massive. The Rangers in the past three years blocked 16.1 shots a game, compared with the Canucks’s 12.5. It’s basically one more blocked shot per period, or, in time, the Rangers blocking a shot every four minutes, and the Canucks blocking one every five.