“Can we call you Torts?”
And with that I officially asked John Tortorella, the new head coach of the Vancouver Canucks and one of the most intimidating interviews in hockey history, my first question.
In the three seconds between question and answer, a list of infamous Tortorella responses ran through my head: ‘I’m not telling you,’ ‘No comment,’ I have no idea what you’re talking about’ and simply ‘no.’
“Yes, that’s what I prefer to be called,” he replied, smiling, making eye contact. “No one calls me John, no one calls me coach. I feel so much more comfortable with Torts. My mother calls me John, that’s about the only person in my life that does, and she calls me Johnny.”
Who was this man seated behind a freshly cleaned desk, in a freshly cleaned office, in the bowels of Rogers Arena, pleasantly opening up about himself? And what had he done with the John Tortorella from all those viral clips that have been populating top 10 lists for years?
After meeting with the 17th head coach in Canucks history early Monday afternoon, I feel like he was punking the world while in New York, pulling a Joaquin Phoenix if you will.
A 30-minute discussion with Torts, who was officially introduced as head coach Tuesday at 1 p.m., and my opinion of him is radically different than before.
Yours will be too, in time.
No point in contrasting him with his predecessor Alain Vigneault – one of AV’s favourite sayings was Keep Calm and Carry On, while Tortorella’s might be something more like Whatever It Takes. The 54-year-old Boston native isn’t about to change who he is behind the bench or in front of the cameras, but he and Canucks GM Mike Gillis agreed he’s got some adjustments to make.
“I think it’s come to the point with me,” said Tortorella, “where I’m kind of being defined as ‘that lunatic,’ not only on the bench, but also after games with media. I don’t want to be defined that way, but I do make my own bed in that type of situation and I need to make some corrections, I need to make some adjustments in that part of it.
“I’m dealing with an older team here, as I look at the roster, I think I need to respect the older players and some of the processes they’ve gone through and make adjustments with myself as far as how I handle them.”
So far, so good.
Tortorella’s hiring begins a new chapter in franchise history, one that promises to be predictably unpredictable. While Tortorella, who spent much of Sunday afternoon reading the Canucks media guide to familiarize himself with player backgrounds, admitted it’s too early for him to comment on how his version of the Canucks will differ from the team swept from the first round of the 2013 NHL Playoffs by the San Jose Sharks, the all-time winningest U.S.-born head coach’s track record speaks for itself as far as winning is concerned.
He’s won a Stanley Cup, Calder Cup and an ACHL Championship, a Jack Adams Award, silver medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and has compiled a 410-330-37-67 record in the NHL.
“My job as a head coach of a hockey team is to push athletes to be the best they can be, to push them to areas where they don’t think they can get, that’s my job and I’m going to do that,” said Tortorella, matter-of-factly. “But let’s be honest, there’s a perception about me and some of the perception is put in an area where that’s all people think I am. I need to prove myself to the players that I’m not just that person and I think that’s going to be a relationship that grows. I want them to understand that I care, I care a lot about winning and losing, but I also care about the people and it’s my job to push people, but I also think it needs to be done in a respectable way and I don’t think a lot of people think it’s done that way, but really they don’t know what goes on in behind here.
“Right now I’m trying to figure out who the Vancouver Canucks are,” admitted Torts, who studied team video throughout the interview process. “I know they’ve been successful, but they’ve got to that point and it’s just that next step they need to take. What’s needed there? I’m a big believer in ‘what is your identity’ and creating an identity, that’s what we’re going to look to. I think there’s some sort of identity there, but when a new coaching staff comes in, you have to put your stamp on that too.”
Tortorella has a lot on his plate right now, as you can imagine, between settling into his role and the city, meeting countless team personnel and staff, hiring assistant coaches, getting to know the players and fitting into a new wardrobe.
Two questions into this interview and CanucksTV reporter Joey Kenward realized Tortorella had NYR on the sleeve of his black jacket. As he was handed a Canucks team jacket, Torts laughed it off as a wardrobe malfunction, saying that one of the toughest parts of changing jobs is switching all your team branded clothing.
If Torts thinks that's tough, he's in for a treat when he truly gets to know Vancouver’s invested, passionate, outspoken fanbase.
“Just walking from the hotel to the rink, I found that out pretty quickly,” he said, when asked if he knew what a hockey mad market Vancouver is. “I’ve been very fortunate in the cities I’ve coached in, but really in the back of my mind, I was hoping someday I’d get a chance to coach in Canada. I’m beginning to understand what it does mean to the people here; I am going to work as hard as I possibly can to make it right and hopefully help us take the next step here. It’s a very good team, it just needs to take the next step.
“This is an adventure and it’s an honour and a privilege and I couldn’t be happier as far as where I’m at at this stage of my career and to have an opportunity to do this in the province of BC with all the people that are glued into this team. It’ll be a tremendous challenge, but I couldn’t be happier.”
Tortorella is talking the talk, walking the walk will have to wait a few months, unfortunately, but with the 2013 NHL Draft less than a week away and free agency shortly after that, the Canucks will be changing before long.
Until then, opinions will hopefully start changing about the new coach in Vancouver.
"As I said before, the perception of me is one I fight every day, but it’s a perception I put myself into with some of the things I’ve done. I want to fight that a bit, I want people to get to know us a little bit to understand what we really are, as a family and me as a coach and as a person. I hope we’re able to have an opportunity to do that.”