By now it has become a postgame guessing game among his questioners. How long will Rangers coach John Tortorella talk and how much will he say? What’s the over-under? The count after Thursday’s series opener against the Bruins was 88 seconds and 71 words, which might have been an Eastern Conference playoff record for hockey haiku.
“The overtime? We never regrouped.”
“There was a surge. We couldn’t stop it.”
Five questions. Five terse, if direct responses. Exit stage right. And that was a gabfest compared to what the 54-year-old Concord native had offered after the morning skate when queried about his homecoming. “Don’t ask me questions about me,” he said. “Ask me questions about this team. Please.”
While Tortorella can be cryptic, if not curt (“What are you asking me? Your questions are way too complicated.”), most of what he says is memorable, if not controversial. “We’ve got everybody and their brother whining up there in Washington about what happened in that series,” he said after New York had battered the Capitals in their seventh game to advance. “And I think that’s a big reason why they lose that series.”
No whining in hockey is the essence of the Tortorella code. You play the game and then you get ready for the next game. That was his approach during his six-plus years in Tampa Bay, where he directed the once-zapless Lightning to the Stanley Cup title in 2004. That’s how he played as an undersized wing at Maine and at Concord-Carlisle High School.
“John was a tremendously respectful, hard-working, blue-collar, ferocious competitor,” recalls Brent Clark, Tortorella’s baseball coach at C-C. “Did he have an edge to him? Yeah, absolutely.”
It was that edge plus an insatiable appetite for practice and a relentless will that enabled a skinny schoolboy who stood 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 145 pounds to play for a Division 1 college, in Sweden’s pro league and the minor leagues, and then become an NHL head coach and win more games (410) than any other American-born mentor. “John was self-made,” says Dooley Thorpe, who was Concord-Carlisle’s athletic director when Tortorella played there in the mid-’70s. “He has outworked everybody to get where he is.”
He also made sure that his teammates worked as hard and cared as much as he did, if that were possible. “Intensity is a word that everyone would use,” says Chuck Huggins, who followed Tortorella as hockey captain and went on to play at Princeton. “But I would couple that with leadership and dedication to the program.”
It was no coincidence that the Patriots made the tournament every year Tortorella played for them. “So goes John, so goes CCHS,” says Thorpe. “He was so competitive that he brought everybody else along with him.”
Accountability was paramount for him. If brother Jim, the team’s star goalie and now a University of New Hampshire assistant, let in a soft one, John would be all over him. Perhaps the most spirited on-ice fight he’d ever seen, one observer recalled, was Tortorella against Tortorella. “I have memories of being at their house and their mother would tell them to take it outside,” says Huggins, who’s now a volunteer coach at C-C. “I think it happened quite frequently.”
Accountability meant going easy on the adolescent vices and pushing yourself to the limit and beyond. Practice wasn’t over until Tortorella decided it was. If the team didn’t have ice time, it still had to work. “There was never a day off,” Huggins says.
Winning required commitment, and Tortorella’s was total. When the Patriots lost in the baseball tournament on graduation day, Tortorella refused to go to the ceremony. “He was in tears in the locker room and he didn’t want to take his uniform off,” Clark recalls. Graduation is one of the milestones of your life, Tortorella was reminded. Your family is there waiting for you. You really have to be there. “It took some persuading,” Clark says, “but he finally did slowly trudge down to the field.” Tortorella, though, would not take off his uniform, and wore it beneath his cap and gown.
While Tortorella might not have had the measurables that Division 1 hockey programs looked for, he had the intangibles, most notably the desire to get there. So after a year in Division 2 at Salem State, Tortorella transferred to Maine, where his brother was, and which was about to upgrade to Division 1. His feral approach originally concerned his coaches, who fretted that Tortorella would pile up penalty minutes.
“My assistant Ted Castle told him, you don’t have to look like you’re going to kill the guy every time you go in the corner,” recalls Jack Semler, who was the Black Bears’ head coach. “John responded immediately by turning into this memorable player.”
Mostly, Tortorella was immovable, going to goal and parking there. “We had a big win at Boston College,” says Semler. “The benches were side by side in McHugh Forum and I remember Steve Cedorchuk, who was Len Ceglarski’s assistant, saying ‘Get that guy out of there, whatever it takes.’ ”
Uprooting Tortorella once he was ensconced was like dislodging a wolverine. “I remember watching film against teams like Cornell and he’d just get knocked down over and over again in front of the net,” says Semler, who’s now an assistant at Nichols. “But he’s just standing there with his stick on the ice and taking the punishment.”
Stoicism — or masochism — alone wasn’t enough to get Tortorella to the NHL, but he played a season for Kristianstads IK and then did the bus tour of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League for four years, lacing up for the Hampton Roads Gulls, Erie Golden Blades, Nashville South Stars, and Virginia Lancers, before hanging up the skates and moving behind the bench. After working his way up the American Hockey League coaching ladder and winning the Calder Cup with Rochester, Tortorella took over in Tampa Bay and spurred the club from last place to divisional winners in two seasons, and then to the franchise’s first Cup.
Not out to make friends
Along the way, Tortorella developed a reputation for sparring with his counterparts and their players, and was labeled “The Great Tortellini” by Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke. After he heard Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock having words with his players, Tortorella said that he should “shut his yap.” In last year’s conference finals, Tortorella and New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer were shouting at each other across the bench divider. “I don’t want to coach his team,” Tortorella said, “but just shut up.”
The Rangers get all the feedback they need from their own coach, who is unsparing in his criticism when they underperform. “We suck and we suck at a time we can’t suck,” Tortorella declared after a two-goal loss at Buffalo in March.
There are enough of his acerbic verbal ripostes that ESPN’s “SportsCenter” this season compiled an updated top 10 of “Torts’ Retorts,” some of which were aimed at New York Post columnist Larry Brooks, a favorite foil (“You were probably beat up at the bus stop most of the time”).
That’s John, say those who’ve known him since his Concord days. “If you burn him or misrepresent something he says or make up things, that’s it with him, he’s had it with you,” says Clark. “But if you’re straight with him, then he’s pretty honest and direct.”
William Tortorella, a former MIT electrician who died last summer, conceded that his son could be a bit unvarnished at times. “Sometimes he does things I don’t get on with, but why should he?” his father told the Newark Star-Ledger. “They ask him silly questions. He’s got a job to do, you know?”
Tortorella is willing to answer a question as long as it’s an interrogatory sentence. “Ask me a question,” he told the assemblage after the Game 6 shutout over Washington. “Don’t say: Talk about it.” Not that the man responds to all queries. “Next question,” he’ll say if one irks him.
Tortorella does not philosophize, nor does he soliloquize, which is a marked contrast to Boston confrere Claude Julien, who is bilingually voluble. “I’m sure he’s excited about answering your questions,” Julien wryly told journalists as he prepared to yield the floor to Tortorella after Thursday’s morning skate. “He always is. Good luck, guys.”
For Julien, 88 seconds and 71 words is a preamble. That was Tortorella’s tally after a stirring overtime contest that was the first playoff meeting between the Original Six rivals in 40 years. If Sunday afternoon’s contest is merely routine regulation, Torts’s haiku could become a tweet — with space left over.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.