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Tortorella Takes Charge — That’s A Good Thing

You may not like the fact that the Columbus Blue Jackets frequently act on a different timetable than the fan base would prefer, but you have to admit that when they do act, it is decisive, unqualified and frequently stunning. Think Brandon Saad. They remained true to form today, when they replaced head coach Todd Richards with former Tampa Bay, New York Rangers and Vancouver head coach John Tortorella.

Dan has already done a great piece announcing the deal (technically even before the Blue Jackets acknowledged the hire), and highlighting some of the elements of Tortorella’s past that provide both positive and negative possibilities for the future. I want to build on that, drawing heavily from Tortorella’s own comments at his introductory press conference, held earlier this afternoon at Nationwide Arena.

First, however, a few more mundane, but interesting, logistical details are worth noting. The first contact concerning the position came just last night, after Jarmo Kekäläinen and John Davidson made the final determination that a change was necessary. Jarmo characterized that decision as the culmination of a process. The Blue Jackets send a 2nd round draft pick to Vancouver in compensation, as required by NHL rule, but apparently have until June 1 to decide whether that will come in 2016, 2017 or 2018. As Dan noted, Tortorella’s contract runs through the end of the 2017-18 season, and Vancouver is retaining part of the salary.

Let’s acknowledge the two ton elephant in the room: Tortorella has a past. Dan’s piece included some video of some of the more questionable aspects of Torts’ past behavior. There’s no question about it — John Tortorella has acted like a horse’s backside on occasion. Unfortunately, as an NHL coach — particularly one operating in high visibility venues and in an age where the entire world walks around with photo and video capabilities in their palm — your past and present are laid bare for the world to see. ( I say a silent prayer of thanks every day that ubiquitous video was unavailable during my college and graduate school days.) Accordingly, for a guy like Tortorella, the past hangs like an albatross around his neck, accompanying him wherever he goes. A brief scan through the comments to Dan’s article should suffice to illustrate the polarizing effect that past can have.

Let’s turn to the present for a moment. Make no mistake — John Tortorella is an intelligent and articulate guy. For those who did not catch the presser live, I encourage you to listen to the entire thing (about 22 minutes worth), which you can find on the Blue Jackets’ site. There are plenty of quotable passages in those clips, but I want to focus on two of the core concepts to which he repeatedly returned: listening, and confidence/mental aspects of the game. To set the stage however, Torts was asked how he spent his year (or year-plus, as he stated) outside of coaching:

You look at yourself, you get to look at other coaches, to look at other teams. The game is ever changing . . .and you are able to watch it from a different perspective — not on the bench, not making split second decisions. You’re able to encompass everything and watch the trends. I listened to other coaches, I listened to General Managers, I listened to the interviews. You reassess. .. . I think as a coach you are always looking to improve. I think that [listening] is one of my pitfalls. I think it happens to a lot of coaches. You get the blinders on and you don’t really see what’s going on around you, you’re so focused. You can lose people that way. I need to listen. . . .We need to do this collectively as a coaching staff and get the players involved.

Notice how many times “listening” appears in that quote? He came back to that personal shortcoming time and again, as if it were a mantra he needs to focus on as he embarks on this new challenge. It is perhaps an unexpected area of focus for a man with Tortorella’s reputation, but there it was. Of course, time will tell how well that concept is integrated into his coaching approach, but it was a topic discussed with sincerity.

Considering that Tortorella did a good deal of introspection and thinking during his year of involuntary exile from the coaching ranks, it was no surprise that he devoted a good deal of his comments to confidence, the mental aspects of the game and how these potentially relate to the Blue Jackets’ current dilemma. Here are a few samples:

I think that one of the problems right now is expectations. There are expectations this year that weren’t there last year for this club. It’s amazing what it does to the individual athlete and what it does to the team concept. That’s where I think it’s kind of lost its way.  As quickly as it’s gone, with lack of confidence and it’s gone South a little bit, you can get that very quickly back and getting the ball rolling the other way. . . . It’s amazing what happens if you can gain some confidence and have it come your way. . . It’s hard to reach in your pocket and say “Here’s some confidence.” It has to come through just some good things happening. If you’ve been around the game long enough, as quickly as it goes this way, it can come back the other way. It was one of the initial things I said as I addressed the team today: “Embrace it. Some good things are going to happen.” When one thing happens in a really good situation,, then get another one right on top of it, then another one on top of it, and then you start relaxing. . . They care, and don’t like being in this situation. I think some of them are probably a little embarrassed. They’re pros. It’s a hard thing to shape, but once it starts coming your way, it starts regrouping and going the other way, and they’ll feel really good about themselves.

I don’t think our game [hockey] is X’s and O’s, I don’t think that’s the most important part. It’s about the mind. That’s the most interesting thing to me about coaching. You don’t know what’s going on up in there. You may get to one guy, but another guy is thinking totally different things. It’s the mind. I think that’s a big part of our responsibility is to get these guys feeling good about themselves and then be together and play under a team concept. . . . You can talk X’s and O’s and analytics and all that stuff, but it comes down to right here [pointing to head]. It’s how you feel about yourself. It’s amazing what you can overcome when you have the right kind of arrogance and strut within your game.

It’s one thing to read these comments in a static article. It’s quite another to hear him discuss these points in person, and to have him look you in the eye as he makes his points. There is no disputing the fact that Tortorella is a presence, and commands the attention, even at a normal tone of voice. I noted several members of the otherwise jaded media nodding their heads as Tortorella spoke. Wait. . . rational thought from John Tortorella? Agreement from the media? Impossible!

No doubt that everyone was on their best behavior today. Cynics would argue that this was nothing more than Eddie Haskell talking sweetly to Mrs. Cleaver, before committing some unspeakable atrocity. From reading much of the commentary today, this is a majority view, characterizing the Blue Jackets as dupes, condemned to repeat history by ignoring its lesson. Sure, that’s a possibility. But isn’t it also possible that Torts himself has learned from the lessons of his personal history? That his personal journey over the past year makes his discussion of listening and the pre-eminence of the mental side of the game a genuine reflection of who he’s become? When he arrived today, the first person he reached out to was Brandon Dubinsky, with whom he shared a stormy relationship while in New York (which he referred to as “going through the process.”). He wants Dubinsky to help him facilitate the transition, and obviously recognized the importance of gaining the room.

Blue Jackets fans don’t have to go far back in history for an extremely close parallel. Ken Hitchcock was an old school coach, despising any game that involved more than two goals — combined — and exalted grizzled veterans who knew how to grab and hold effectively over the callow youth, who knew nothing. He took the Blue Jackets to their first playoff spot, but did so by trampling the spirits of the majority of players on the youngest team in the NHL. Combined with the pressure that his favored style of play exerted on all concerned, his exile was inevitable (as it is for all coaches). He spent the next couple of years examining his assumptions, and working with junior clubs — of all things — across Canada. Through the process, he learned to appreciate the value that the youngsters can bring to the game. With the changing climate of the NHL, he also grudgingly agreed that some measure of offense was necessary. Now, he is blessed with Vladimir Tarasenko, who is both young and an offensively minded player. Horrors!! He still receives grumbling over his style, but the results have largely been there.

Personally, I don’t want a “reformed” John Tortorella. Sure, he needs to forego some of the outrageousness of his past, but I’m on board with a coach who is tough, passionate and even yells. When was it precisely that it became a mortal sin to yell? Thinking back, most of my swimming and water polo coaches over the years were master yellers. One, with a particularly good arm and aim, would whap a recalcitrant player in the head with a water polo ball during practice. (I had a friend who knew a guy this happened to.) The point is that these coaches got my attention, and made me better.

Quite simply, John Tortorella is a winner. In 12 seasons as a full-time head coach, he has been in the playoffs eight times, and won the Stanley Cup with the 2003 – 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s the winningest American coach in history, and was named by USA Hockey to coach the U.S. team in the World Cup of Hockey next year. He knows what it takes to reach the highest levels of the game, which is something that Todd Richards did not have. Sure, he’s tough, direct and vocal. But the thing is that Tortorella will also yell just as vociferously in support of his players as he will at them. Like it or not, that inspires players, and helps instill that elusive confidence that the Blue Jackets so sorely need.

Is it really so unusual to have a head coach with a challenging personality? Ever watch Jim Harbaugh on the sideline? The San Francisco 49ers ownership apparently felt that he was too much to handle, and let him go, despite having posted a 44-19-1 record over four years, including a Super Bowl appearance and three seasons with 11+ wins. The Michigan State game aside, he marches into Ann Arbor and transforms that program overnight. Outrageous? Frequently. Does he inspire his players, provide confidence and get results? Absolutely.

Years ago, there was another coach who screamed, ranted, threw things, and verbally berated and abused his players. He also lived by this philosophy:

Winning is not a sometime thing – it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while. You don’t do the right thing once in a while. You do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.

The man? A guy named Vince Lombardi, who did a fair amount of winning in his day. Listen to the presser today, and you’ll here similar sentiments.

The point is not to equate John Tortorella with Vince Lombardi. The point is that we need to look beyond the superficial antics and the yelling, and see what lies beneath. I always prefer dealing with somebody who is straightforward and lets me know precisely where I stand, instead of a passive-aggressive individual whose actions belie their words. The players likely will prefer that as well.

Finally, it’s disturbing to read attacks that go beyond his coaching and hockey performance to question his personal integrity or behavior. I’m not a fan of that kind of character assassination. We don’t need to revile Todd Richards to determine that the club needs to go in a different direction. Ditto with Tortorella. John Davidson and Jarmo Kekäläinen obviously feel comfortable enough with his integrity and character to hire him over a span of a few hours. USA Hockey feels comfortable enough to make him the leader of the national team in the revitalized World Cup. Do you think that they would take that risk if they thought that there was the slightest chance he would embarrass them? Likely not. Oh, you might also check out this site, which documents the incredible work the charitable foundation John and his wife established. Not the stuff you would expect from the Great Satan, eh?

Based upon his comments today, John Tortorella does not ask us to love him, like him, or even respect him. What he does ask is that we give him a chance to show what he and the team can accomplish through their respective actions. Isn’t that why he was hired? Only time and actions will determine how this succeeds, or doesn’t. Let’s all allow that to happen.

It all starts with a player meeting today at 10:00 AM, followed by the game against Minnesota. Stay tuned.