ANAHEIM – The Columbus Blue Jackets had every reason to slow down in their 4-2 loss at the Anaheim Ducks.
It was the last game of an already successful California road trip. The team had surprised the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings, winning their first two games of a three-game trek through the Golden State.
They had a long flight scheduled the next day – and they were down 2-0. And then the Blue Jackets made it 2-1. Then the Ducks pushed it to 3-1 midway through the third period.
Again nobody would have faulted the Blue Jackets if they folded. The mediocre teams in the NHL tend to cave during the final contest of a long trip – especially if the team already was guaranteed a winning record on the voyage.
But Columbus continued their dogged play in all zones and Scott Hartnell took a feed from Brandon Saad in transition and poked the puck past Frederik Andersen with a minute left in the game to make it 3-2. The Ducks eventually put the game out of reach with an empty netter, but the Blue Jackets showed new coach John Tortorella they won’t quit for him. That day-by-day they were further buying into his blood and guts brand of hockey.
“I don’t think we gave in today,” Tortorella said. “We were a little inconsistent but we didn’t give up.”
The hiring of Tortorella to coach Columbus three weeks ago after the firing of Todd Richards moved the needle around the NHL. Tortorella is considered a rock star coach – someone with a big personality, who has achieved a high level of success. He won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and is the winningest American born coach in NHL history. In some ways he’s the United States’ equivalent to Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock as far as personality and profile.
He had been out of coaching for a year after a rough stint with the Vancouver Canucks, but seemed the perfect fit for Columbus after the team, which had preseason Stanley Cup aspirations, struggled to an 0-7-0 start.
And so far he’s given the Blue Jackets what they’ve needed to get out of the slump – brutal honesty with a bit of discipline. In eight games with Tortorella, the Blue Jackets are 4-4-0 and set at 4-11-0 on the season. They’ve outscored their opponents 22-20 since the coaching change.
“I think it’s something we needed in here. We needed a guy to come in and be real honest with us in how we were playing individually and a group,” forward Brandon Dubinsky said. “I think he’s done that. Nobody can hide. If you’re playing well, you’re going to get the opportunity and if you’re not then you’re not going to get that opportunity. I think as an athlete that’s really all you can ask for because your work ethic determines your ice time and your opportunity, so he’s done a lot of good things since he’s been here and I think our group is getting better.”
There’s often wonder about Tortorella and who he really is. He’s known as a guy who gets into fights with the media and even other teams.
But that’s just one part of his personality – a small sliver that’s caught on camera. Players see him in the locker room and have a better sense of him as a coach and a person.
He’s not just a demanding coach who wants his players to block shots.
“He loves being in the locker room, he loves coaching, he loves teaching, he loves helping guys. He has a side to him that isn’t brash or harsh,” Dubinsky said. “He cares a lot about his players and his family and you see that sometimes in his media outbursts where somebody attacks one of his players and he takes it personally.”
He also gives his players parental-level advice, which often means he’s highly truthful. Outside of the Xs and Os, this is a core tenet of Tortorella’s coaching philosophy. Getting a player to buy into what he’s preaching involves telling the player exactly what he feels about them. While it may lead to some agitation initially, he believes this helps the greater good of the player and the team in the long-term.
“I think they need to know where they’re at all times, good and bad,” Tortorella said. “A lot of people like to focus on the bad but a lot of times it’s the good. I’m going to continue doing that. If conflict comes out of it, I don’t think conflict’s a bad thing. I think people are a little afraid of conflict, but when there is honesty there’s going to be conflict and if you work through it together as mature people you become closer and I think it’s good for your team.”
Players and management around the Blue Jackets are often careful to point out how they all liked Richards as a coach. But there seems to be a level of understanding that Richards couldn’t be quite as blunt in his assessments of players as Tortorella. It’s not that one belief is more correct than the other. The Blue Jackets for this season seemed to need a coach who tells it like it is.
“I think Richie was a little more patient, maybe in situations if guys maybe were struggling at times,” forward Ryan Johansen said. “He would give you, I guess, some more time to figure out your game or whatever it may be to get yourself going. I guess it’s a shorter leash with Torts. If you’re not doing it from the drop of the puck you don’t have much time to get it going.”
While the Blue Jackets have praised this element of Tortorella’s coaching style, there have been some growing pains that have come with understanding his grinder mentality. Johansen sat the final 6:10 of Tortorella’s first game as coach. There was a rumor that Tortorella told Johansen the forward was out of shape – a conversation Johansen later confirmed.
It was found Johansen was suffering from fatigue late in games. He missed two games to have medical tests done.
Sometimes in hockey there are misunderstandings – especially with a new coach and a new player. But considering Tortorella’s rep as a disciplinarian, this struck a nerve.
“He just demands the best out of everyone,” Johansen said. “It’s been great so far. I think a lot of guys have responded well. I know with myself I’ve started to play better now and he’s a really passionate guy who wants to win every night
Has Tortorella won over his players? It’s always tough for a new coach to do so quickly in his tenure. Hearing some of the bigger leadership names in the room gush about Tortorella, it appears he has done just that.
“There’s no gray and I think a lot of guys appreciate it, because I think that’s what you want,” captain Nick Foligno said. “You just want to know where you stand and whether you like it or not, sometimes honesty is the best thing you can get because there’s no question marks and I think with him – sometimes it’s brutal honesty, but I think you respect him because he’s going to tell you the truth and he’s doing it to make you better.”
Said veteran forward Scott Hartnell, “You know when you’re playing good and you know when you need to pick it up. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re the best player on our team or a grinder or a steady D man. If you’re not pulling your weight you’re going to be told or shown on film and if that doesn’t work then I’m sure you’ll be out of the lineup. It’s makes everyone accountable.”
In the past, Dubinsky has been critical about Tortorella and how the coach dealt with the New York Rangers when both were part of that organization. But he showed no hesitation to laud Tortorella with this new group.
“When I played for him when I was young. I was 22 or so and I had a lot of growing up to do and I had a lot to learn to be consistent and be a good professional and things like that. He really grabbed me and taught me those things and I feel like I learned those,” Dubinsky said. “He’s able to rely on me as a leader of the group and work through things as a guy between him and the team. It’s a different responsibility but it’s good.”
No matter what Tortorella does with the Blue Jackets, he won’t be able to erase the stigma that surrounds him as a coach. He loves blocked shots. He’s a yeller with a no-spin zone.
But with this team, he can show that those elements of his philosophy aren’t necessarily bad, just parts of his personality that make him a successful coach.
“I think the mental part of the game and the identity of your team and the honesty that goes with the players, those intangibles in developing that far outweigh the Xs and Os,” Tortorella said. “It’s how you feel about yourself, what you are as an individual and what you are as a team.”
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