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A defense of the enigma that is John Tortorella

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In Torts I trust.

NHL: JAN 04 Blue Jackets Training Camp Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Have you ever been in a room with John Tortorella? I used to be - pretty regularly, after many a home game during 2018-2020 - and it was always a few moments of time that I never quite got used to. If I didn’t pack my camera and scuttle out of the conference room that was adjacent to the locker room quickly enough after a game, I’d be trapped in there during his media availability.

The back door would open up and he’d casually take his place at the podium, and everybody in the room stopped talking, rustling, breathing - which was great, because if I was silent and didn’t make any sudden movements, I got to sit there undetected and watch the show!

He possesses quite a presence for someone who is relatively short-statured - he can wither the most seasoned of sports journalists with his eye contact; he shuts the boldest among them down with just a stare. He has an ornery twinkle in his eye when he’s happy, and he is clearly much more favorable towards dogs and children than he is with adults.

Along with his body language, he’ll also happily verbalize when he’s not interested in speaking further on a topic. This is one of my favorite and also least favorite characteristics about him. Part of me knows that his job as head coach is to answer for the team’s results, so he shouldn’t get to shut those questions down in a post-game presser. The other part of me knows that I would do the exact same thing if I were in his shoes - especially if someone asked me a bad question - so how can I be irritated with him? I know it’s not conducive to journalistic endeavors when his answers are short and succinct, but his non-answers are answers in themselves.

Here is my assessment: John Tortorella is an intensely private person who doesn’t want to let people peer behind the curtain to see how he shapes his team and his players. And shape he has! Under his leadership, the Jackets have gone to the playoffs for the last four years. I know that’s not the only benchmark for success, but it’s absolutely undeniable that his presence at least heightened the competitiveness of the Blue Jackets to a new level in the NHL.

Some of my Cannon colleagues and commenters (Cannonites? Is that what we are?) might say that I would ride or die for Torts, I would agree with anything he did, I’m ignoring the facts of the matter, I’m being emotional and not logical about his future with Columbus, blah blah. You can say that! On the contrary, I know I don’t have a blind, baseless loyalty towards John Tortorella. Just as with all men, I am sure there is a threshold for BS that he can reach that will permanently turn me off, but we haven’t gotten there yet.

Case in point - in 2016, as coach of Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey, Tortorella stated that any players who did not stand for the anthem would remain benched for the rest of the game. Despite criticism for this stance, he stood by it - his son was deployed in Afghanistan three times as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, and that’s where his deeply-held conviction for respecting the flag stems from.

This angered me, and I couldn’t have disagreed more with Tortorella on this stance. Colin Kaepernick and any other Black athlete and Black American have every right to kneel during the national anthem based on their lived experience in this country, just as any military service member and their family members retain the right to honor the flag in any way they see fit. That is freedom of speech and expression as embodied in the bedrock of American government and culture.

HOWEVER. In 2020, John Tortorella publicly acknowledged the reversal of his stance on this issue, saying:

“I have learned over the years, listening and watching, that men and women who choose to kneel during this time mean no disrespect toward the flag.”

What more could I ask for than for somebody to listen to others and update their convictions accordingly? His original stance was based on his own narrow perspective - his son’s military service and his lived experience as an affluent white man in America. When he was met with criticism, he could have doubled down on his stance - instead, he opened himself up to other points of view, placed himself in the shoes of people unlike him, and was able to publicly update his opinions on a hot-button matter in sports. A small person would not be capable of doing that.

Yes, he’s an incredibly polarizing character - but that’s an advantage for this team, not a drawback. He intentionally uproots convention, which certainly invites criticism and can cause collateral damage, as diverging from the status quo often does. He is radically honest, which is valuable in some ways and harmful in others. He is a man who is strictly guided by his own moral compass, but he also seems receptive to feedback from people whose opinions he values. No offense to all my part-time Twitter CBJ coaches out there, but I don’t believe your opinions are included in that category.

As for how he treats his players, I know that’s something we don’t see close to the full picture of, so it’s difficult to draw conjectures without jumping to conclusions. What I know to be true is that he is evidently a highly-respected coach to play for and he has continued to elevate this team in the time he’s spent here. He is certainly not going to be a match made in heaven with the personality of every player, and we’ve definitely seen evidence of that in departures over the years - but he’s also capable of drawing in new talent who are excited by the challenge of playing for him so they can grow and develop into better players. I think it’s easy to lose track of the fact that these are all grown men who get paid millions of dollars to perform in their roles, and maybe some of these men - coaches and players alike, across the league - need to put their money towards developing thicker skin.

We are clearly witnessing the Blue Jackets in the throes of growing pains, supervised by John Tortorella. I don’t believe the time is right for Tortorella’s departure, simply because I believe he’s serving as a linchpin holding this particular group together during this weird period of pandemic hockey. What happens when Torts is fired and all of the structural and interpersonal issues plaguing this team aren’t solved? That’s my concern - that this team will be worse off without Torts in the midst of the issues they’re facing, not better.

I want to preface my next thoughts by saying that this is pure speculation on my part - I don’t have any evidence to support this claim, but I simply do not believe that any toxicity we’re witnessing on this team right now can all be pinned on Tortorella and his influence. There are many strong leadership personalities on this roster, and they have just as much responsibility and ability in influencing the attitudes in the locker room as Tortorella does - for better or for worse.

Patrik Laine’s benching was obviously a huge point of contention in CBJ Land, and I think that the fallout would have been incredibly different if they had lost that game instead of Jack Roslovic’s storybook game-winning goal. I try not to dabble in “what-ifs,” but I think it’s fair to say Torts would have faced much more heat if they had lost after benching the brand new star power on the team. I also think it would have made a difference if he was benched for his play, but after the fact we learned he was benched for mouthing off to a coach. No matter how funny or well-deserved this was, this all goes back to Tortorella strictly following his moral compass. He is nothing if not predictable!

Pierre-Luc Dubois’ sudden departure was the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion. That’s all we’re afforded as spectators from home - tips of all the icebergs. We’ll never have a full understanding of the machinations and interpersonal relationships of these players and coaches, except for the vague snippets they give us in interviews. How can we build a full case against any of these players or coaches without having the full story?

So who has the full story? The CBJ front office, the coaching staff, and the players. The journalists who cover this team and the fans who support this team will never fully understand what happens behind the scenes, try as we might. So I guess I can either sit at home and be angry at these coaches and players and shout myself hoarse into the Twitter void, or I can stick to my standard method for this season so far, where I’m thankful to be watching hockey in the first place: I pour myself a glass of wine and enjoy the rollercoaster ride - all the ups and downs - and trust in Torts to take us onward and upward, as he always has.