John Tortorella, Philadelphia Flyers

WHO KNEW? A mellowed Torts Fulfills Dream to Become Flyers’ Coach

What happened to the potty-mouthed NHL coach who took verbal shots at his players, opposing teams, and media members during his long career?

For one day. at least, John Tortorella was on his best behavior.

In his introductory Zoom news conference with the media Friday, the new Philadelphia Flyers coach was animated, compassionate, and confident. And thankful. Very, very thankful he had landed his dream job.

He said the year away from coaching helped him learn more about his profession, especially from an analytics standpoint. Tortorella also said he has learned to lower his temperature a bit when dealing with players.

“Especially in today’s league,” he said, adding it was important because so many young players are now in the NHL. “I think back when I used to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t.’ I wanted to predict the game. I wanted them to move the way I wanted them to move in certain situations. I think I’ve kind of come full circle here. Players need to express themselves.”

That doesn’t mean he has turned into a pushover. He still coaches hard, still pushes his players but knows when to back off.

“Players need structure,” he said.

He revealed he has always deeply respected the Philadelphia Flyers and what their logo represented — actually, he referred to it as their “emblem” — and that for nearly two decades, he had thought about one day coaching the Orange and Black. Tortorella said he always wanted to coach in Philly because of the fans’ passion and the Wells Fargo Center’s atmosphere. (He obviously wasn’t talking about last season.)

“It’s the Philadelphia Flyers,” said Tortorella, who has coached Tampa Bay, the Rangers, Vancouver and Columbus in parts of 20 seasons. “That’s all I need to say.”

‘Work to do’

He said he didn’t want to get trapped into labeling this a retool or a rebuilding season, that he just wanted to get the most out of his players — no matter how the roster was constructed.

“I know there’s work to do,” he said, mindful the Flyers are coming off the second-worst season in franchise history. “That’s what I want to do.”

Tortorella, who turns 64 on June 24, said he “couldn’t be more excited about being part of the Philadelphia Flyers. It may sound a little silly, but even when I was coaching another team, I’ve always thought about that city, that team, and about hoping to have an opportunity along the way.”

He got a four-year deal that will pay him $4 million a season.

During the Zoom call, the Boston native didn’t come across as a confrontational, know-it-all, like in some past settings. He seemed more smooth and happy in his skin. He said he will delegate responsibility, and that it was critical that he and general manager Chuck Fletcher find the right assistant to run the power play, which last season clicked at just 12.6 percent, second-lowest in franchise history. (Paging Joey Mullen?)

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In a wide-ranging news conference, Tortorella, who lives in Connecticut, said he had been “shoveling a lot of shit out here” with his dogs and horses, and that he was thrilled to get away from that and talk about hockey and the Flyers.

Fletcher’s denial

Fletcher was also on the Zoom call. He vehemently denied a report that he was unhappy that a search committee recommended Tortorella. “You shouldn’t trust everything you read,” he said, adding that Tortorella was “absolutely” his first choice.

The latter part is surprising when you consider defensive genius Barry Trotz was among the eight candidates interviewed. (It had been assumed that Trotz turned down Fletcher’s offer.)

As for the search firm, Fletcher said it set up the formal search process and created “an ideal candidate profile.” The final hiring decision, Fletcher said, was his.

Here are some snippets from the 50-plus minute session with reporters:

  • Tortorella said he doesn’t know much about the Flyers players except for Cam Atkinson, the right winger he coached in Columbus. Here’s what Atkinson had to say:
  • The 23rd coach in Flyers history said he needs to talk to the players and see them in practice before he knows how to coach them. “I coach hard and these guys will know where they stand with me each and every day,” he said.
  • Echoing what Atkinson said in his season-ending interview with the media, Tortorella said he wants the team to play with more of an edge. He wants opponents “to think they’ve got their hands full” when playing the Flyers. The two-time Coach of the Year said the Flyers need to to play with “hardness. We’ve got to get some skin. We’ve got to grow some skin.”
  • Tortorella: “My job is to push athletes to levels they are not used to getting to, and I’m going to do that.” He conceded: “I’ve made mistakes. I’ve pushed too hard at certain times.”
  • Turning around the team, he said, starts with play away from the puck. He added that it was going to be a “very difficult” training camp in September. “High volume skating. That will be (talked) about during the summer. We’re attacking it.”
  • He sounded like a beloved high school coach when he said: “I don’t know what I like better, developing a hockey player or developing the person.”
  • Tortorella said he and others have had a tendency to “over-coach at times,” and that he has tried to improve in that aspect. “I try to check myself daily as I’m dealing with the players, especially in the offensive part of the game. I don’t have the ability or the sight that offensive people have, or the creativity they have,” he said. “I need to allow them to play. … But you’ve got to show me — and, more importantly, show your teammates — that you’re willing to do some other stuff as an offensive guy away from the puck. Then you have something.” He added he will let his skilled players play to their strengths and not try turning them into checkers.
  • Torts said he gets “coined as a defensive guy,” and that structure is what he preaches. The Flyers had little structure last season, and a lot of that was because a slew of injuries had the lineup in constant flux.
  • Being away from coaching last season, Tortorella said, was “great for me, my wife, and my kids.” He said he was able to do lots of work with an animal-welfare program during the year, and that he got more involved in hockey analytics and learned from other coaches.
  • When he coached Scott Hartnell in Columbus, Tortorella said they had some verbal battles but they ironed things out. “I love the man,” he said of Hartnell, now a Flyers analyst with NBC Sports Philadelphia.
  • Torts said he wanted “our guys to be proud of themselves” and stick up for one another.
  • Flyers center Kevin Hayes got a call Friday from Tortorella, and the coach said he was trying to set up a meeting with the veteran. Tortorella said he thinks “there’s more there” that he wants to bring out of Hayes on the ice, and he called him a “huge piece” moving forward.
  • Fletcher said “players will respond if they know you’re demanding, but you’re demanding in a sense that you care about them.” Tortorella said he was “going to coach hard, but I’m going to be fair.”
  • An outside firm set up the interview process, which had Danny Briere and Brent Flahr assist Fletcher in the first session. Dean Lombardi, another club exec, was there for the second interview.
  • Fletcher said he plans to be “aggressive” in trying to make offseason moves.
  • One of his goals, Tortorella said, was to give goaltender Carter Hart more support. Somewhere, we assume, Hart smiled when relayed those telling words.

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