Every NHL fan has some assortment of the same image — face red, spit flying, fingers pointing — in their heads when the name John Tortorella is brought up. Throughout 20 years of coaching in the league, Tortorella has unapologetically led with his fiery personality and steep expectations, leaving success — and a bit of drama — in his wake. Now, as the new bench boss of the Philadelphia Flyers, the old-school veteran is shifting the tides on Broad Street.
Speaking candidly, the Flyers were brutal to watch during their 2021-2022 campaign. They won a single game in January, dropping 12 of the 13 matchups on the month’s schedule. Philly slotted in at 29th place of 32 teams at the end of the year, practically screaming out for some sort of change. And so, on June 16, in walked Torts as the organization’s 23rd head coach.
Tortorella understands his reputation and doesn’t shy away from it. He made that clear in his opening press conference with Philadelphia on June 17 when speaking about the reconstruction of his new squad.
“One of the most important attributes of a head coach is to find and teach the structure away from the puck, and I work at that,” Tortorella said. “I kind of get coined as that defensive guy — you can coin me any way you want, you can say what you want about me, [but structure is] a huge part of winning.”
Now in the early stages of this season, it appears that pieces of his harsh love, if you want to call it that, have begun to rub off on a previously disjointed Flyers group. While it’s hard to give any team a meritable assessment at this point in the season, Philly has strung together five wins in their first nine games. Two of their losses were highly-contested overtime battles with the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers — two top-tier Metropolitan Division opponents.
The bottom line here is the Flyers are competitive. Tortorella’s team may not top the league in points or go on double-digit win streaks, but they also won’t go down easily. The two-time Jack Adams award winner demands a grinding, heart-and-soul style of play from his roster, and that’s what he’s beginning to pull out of the Philadelphia lineup.
Before the Oct. 13 opening night at Wells Fargo Center, NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Clark interviewed Torts about his first impressions of his group. Specifically, Clark asked, “Have you found something that you can build on? An identity with this team?”
Most freshly hired head coaches would offer some PR answer, like “Yep. We’ve got a solid group of guys in our room. A lot of character in the boys.” Torts isn’t here to sugarcoat things. He’s honest — at times brutally — but won’t gloss over the bad to make himself look better.
“No,” Tortorella said. “No, and I think that’s a huge part of becoming a team, is developing that identity, and no, I think we’re a bit scattered. It’s a huge part of my job to bring it together.”
Torts’ straightforward, transparent response is the raw truth that the people in and outside the locker room need to hear. Miracles have a place in sports and that’s why we keep coming back — the mere possibility of a team pulling the pieces together conjures an unwavering faith in its fans that things can turn out well. That’s the beautiful thing about hockey, but Tortorella isn’t here for the ooey-gooey optimism. He’s a dose of reality, he’s taking the challenge head-on, and players respect him for that.
Philly forward Cam Atkinson, who played ten seasons as a Blue Jacket, got a taste of the Torts method when Torts was at the helm in Columbus. Now reunited, Atkinson said he thinks his teammates will respond well to their new coach.
“He’s honest. He tells you where you are in the lineup and if you’re playing well, if you’re not playing well and what you need to do to get better,” Atkinson said on the Flyers Talk podcast on June 17. “The season itself, I’m sure there’s going to be ups and downs. You’re going to see some really good things with Torts and some of his hot moments, but he does it for the right reasons.”
The Flyers’ consistent competition level may dwindle as the regular season drags on, but Tortorella has brought some pride and morale back to the bench and the stands in the NHL’s opening weeks. While he’s known for his temper — “6 Minutes of John Tortorella Angry Moments” has 508k views on YouTube — Torts is also known to be a culture changer, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.