New Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella answer a reporter’s question on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 at his introductory news conference at Rogers Arena.
Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG
VANCOUVER — It was in the very early days of John Tortorella's playing career at the University of Maine when head coach Jack Semler suggested one of his assistants might want to have a word with the young right-winger.
Semler had noticed his new recruit was, well, a little intense and sent first-year assistant coach Ted Castle to have a chat with him.
"Ted specifically told John after we had done some scrimmaging one day that you don't have to look like you're going to kill a guy every time you go in the corners," Semler recalled with a chuckle earlier this week.
"I feared that if he didn't take Ted's advice he would be going to the box too often. But John was the kind of guy who liked structure and from that moment on he just all of a sudden knew that he was going to plant his stick on the ice and play. He was still one of the toughest guys in the corner and he didn't take many penalties, but a lot of people took penalties against him trying to kill him."
Those probably were not the first players who wanted to kill Tortorella and definitely not the last.
It's that win-at-all-costs intensity and unwavering work ethic that seem to be common threads in Tortorella's past, ones that played a key role in allowing him to weave his way from being a fringe minor-league player to a successful NHL coach. On Tuesday, he became the 17th head coach of the Vancouver Canucks and the first American to hold the job.
"John was a very hard worker," Semler said of the Boston-born Tortorella, who turned 55 on Monday. "We'd plant him in front of the net on the power play. John is a not a terribly big guy, but if he got knocked down he'd get right back up every time. He just became a memorable hockey player at Maine."
Tortorella had transferred to Maine after one season at Salem State College. He joined his younger brother, Jim, who was a highly recruited goalie at Maine and is now an associate coach with the University of New Hampshire men's hockey team.
Both of the Tortorellas had attended Concord Carlisle Regional High School in the Boston area, where John captained both the hockey and baseball (he was a shortstop) teams.
Semler remembers Tortorella as a quiet guy, who didn't have much to say to his coaches. He had a part-time job on campus at the Maine arena as a ticket-taker.
"He would hand out the figure skates for public skating," Semler said.
"John was quiet as a mouse. He was seen but not heard by coaches, meaning he wanted to take his instructions and then keep his mouth shut. That's the kind of player he was.
"But I think he was a good leader in the locker room. Apparently, one day he had an across-the-locker-room chat with his younger brother that was not too friendly. I didn't hear it, but apparently he was being the older brother and he wanted Jimmy to stop talking, I guess."
After graduating from Maine — he had 12 goals and 42 points in 34 games in his senior year — Tortorella headed to Sweden for one season, where he played in the Swedish fifth division.
He returned to toil in the old Atlantic Coast Hockey League, making stops with the Hampton Road Gulls, Erie Golden Blades, Nashville South Stars and finally the Virginia Lancers.
By then, he had most definitely found his voice. Pete De Armas was his linemate for one season in Virginia and remembers Tortorella as a player who was constantly challenging his teammates to give more.
"As a teammate he was a fierce competitor," said De Armas, now a chiropractor in the San Diego area. "He was the guy who would tell the guys on the bench, 'you better be giving it everything you've got because I'm out here giving everything I've got.'
"The expectation was, ‘Hey, I'm out here sweating and sacrificing and blocking shots and you guys can do the same.' He always called out guys and I think he still does that now. You see it in his interviews. But he is the nicest guy off the ice."
That 1985-86 season was as close as Tortorella would get to the NHL as a player and of course that wasn't very close at all.
Tortorella had 37 goals, 96 points and 153 penalty minutes in 60 games in his final season as a player.
"He had good hands and was a tough guy, good in the corners," De Armas said. "He was not a finesse guy, he was the worker bee."
The Lancers' owner had liked what he had seen of the feisty Tortorella as a player and asked him to coach the team the following season. De Armas, who has kept in contact with Tortorella over the years, stayed on as team captain and assistant playing coach.
De Armas said Tortorella brought that same intensity he displayed as a player to his new job as coach.
Tortorella shipped out some veterans and brought in a number of college players, knowing they would be more hungry to win and learn.
"He went with the younger guys because he knew a lot of the cagey veterans were just there to have fun and hang on," De Armas said. "We wanted to win the Cup so he went with a younger crew. We had a lot of college players and he knew those guys would follow his philosophy and we ended up winning the Cup that year."
Tortorella coached one more season in Virginia before getting his first significant coaching break.
Rick Dudley hired Tortorella to be his assistant with the AHL's New Haven Nighthawks for the 1988-89 season. The Nighthawks lost in the Calder Cup final that season and Dudley was named head coach of the Buffalo Sabres the following season. He took Tortorella with him.
Tortorella spent six years with the Sabres before becoming head coach of Buffalo's AHL affiliate in Rochester. Tortorella won the Calder Cup in his first of two seasons with the Americans. Former Canuck Dixon Ward was on that team and remembers Tortorella as a demanding but fair coach.
"He is very intense, he is very passionate, but from my experience everything he did was based around what was going to help the team win," said Ward, now vice-president of the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton. "It was never about John Tortorella."
Tortorella's brother Jim made that very point in an interview a few years ago.
"The (players) who buy in and respect what he's trying to do are the ones who will thrive," the younger Tortorella said. "People think that because he's gruff and direct that it's a dictatorship.
"Let's face it. Coaching is egotistical and some become narcissistic because they think it's all about them. With Johnny it's not about him. It's about getting every player to get the best out of himself for the good of the team."
Assistant jobs with Phoenix and the Rangers followed that stint in Rochester and Tortorella finally landed his first NHL head coaching gig in 2001 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Three seasons later, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup.
After six seasons in Tampa, Tortorella left Florida to become head coach of the Rangers.
Tortorella, who is married with a son and daughter, has ruffled more than a few feathers along the way.
He had some public battles with the likes of Vincent Damphousse and Dan Boyle in Tampa Bay. Former Philadelphia general manager Bobby Clarke once referred to Tortorella as the "Great Tortellini." In the 2004 playoffs, the Philadelphia Daily News came up with this classic headline: "Yo Torty! Shut Yer Yap!"
His dealings with the media have become legendary, particularly some of his dustups with New York Post hockey columnist Larry Brooks.
"You were probably beat up on the bus stop most of the time," Tortorella said to Brooks during one memorable exchange during his four-year stint as Rangers' coach.
His old teammate Pete De Armas says all these years later he's not surprised to see the success his old friend has found as a National Hockey League coach.
"He just has the work ethic and the tenacity," De Armas says. "I think it was a just a matter of time."
But it was Tortorella's mom, Rita, who perhaps best summed up her son in an interview with NHL.com when he took the job with the Rangers in 2009.
"If he knows he's wrong, he'll say he's sorry," Mrs. Tortorella said. "But he's pretty sure he's right most of the time."
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