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A coach who just wants to coach

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets


VANCOUVER – Originally scheduled for 2:15 p.m. Pacific time, John Tortorella bumped his media availability up one hour this afternoon.

We’ll just say it was because he was feeling generous and couldn’t wait to see the local media.

Of course, Tortorella’s last job before joining the Blue Jackets was with these Canucks in 2013-14. It was a rocky year, and Tortorella is pretty honest about it (which should come as no surprise): he absolutely loved his time in Vancouver, loves the people he met, and the people he worked with.

In his one season with the Canucks, Tortorella was suspended for two weeks after an incident that occurred right here at Rogers Arena. Tortorella didn’t like the starting lineup iced by Flames head coach Bob Hartley and felt he needed to respond to protect his team, and it led to fireworks.

There was Tortorella, peering around the partition that separates the two benches, screaming at Hartley while the Calgary coach stared straight ahead after what was best described as a line brawl.

During the first intermission, Tortorella marched down the hallway and tried to get to the Flames' dressing room – and that’s where it spiraled out of control.

The suspension was “embarrassing,” Tortorella said Wednesday afternoon, and it’s something he constantly wishes he could take back. It happened at a time when his Canucks team was hanging on for dear life in the playoff picture and was dealing with multiple injuries, and the last thing he wanted to do in that moment was to create a distraction.

But that’s exactly what happened, and though he regrets it, he learned from it.

“That’s not what we needed,” Tortorella said.

Today, he was able to joke that, compared to the last time, there was slightly less confrontation when he approached the visitors’ dressing room at Rogers Arena.

He knows he’s a man and a coach who will always have to fight this perception that he’s a screaming, yelling maniac. He knows what follows him and he’s aware how some perceived him to arrive in Columbus with “baggage,” as he’s often termed it.

It doesn’t matter to him, though. Not one bit. In this particular job and in this situation, he’s not only grateful for another opportunity but also invigorated by the teaching and the “sleeves rolled up” style of coaching that’s involved with a young team.

This job is pure coaching, and he’s loving it.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Tortorella said. “There were so many expectations placed on the team (entering the season). It’s involved a lot of teaching – not just the X’s and O’s, but also about a mindset. I think we have some really good kids, and I like the guys here.”

Are you a different coach now, John, because of your experience in Vancouver?

“I think I am,” he said. “With Columbus, there’s a lot of teaching going on. I’m trying to allow the players to grow and to listen. As a coach, I think I’ve been more patient in that way, but there’s a fine line where you’re listening and you’re watching and you hope it’s growing, but sometimes, you have to step into the locker room, too, and correct things along the way.

“Listen – I get put in a box, whether it’s right or wrong, that I’m this knucklehead that won’t listen to anybody. I think that perception is there when I come to a new team. I want them to see that this is a two-way street here.”

There was plenty to think about during his year-plus away from coaching, a stint that included some strict time off, getting further entrenched in his passion for animal welfare, and getting to see how those media guys hack it on the other side of the microphone.

Returning to coaching was always the goal. Coaches want to coach. But if the opportunity did not come by his door step, Tortorella knew he had plenty to be proud of.

So when John Davidson, a man he’d known for a long time, gave him a call, the 57-year-old slightly stubborn Bostonian felt he was presented with the ideal scenario: the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

He doesn’t feel as though he has to “nail it” with Columbus, nor does he think he has to prove to anyone that he’s “still got it.” In fact, it's quite the opposite.

“I look at this situation, when I got the call from them, as being one of the most fortunate guys you could be,” Tortorella said. “I’ve got many kicks at the can here as far as running hockey clubs, and to get an opportunity to be around with Jarmo, JD and Billy and the ownership group (in Columbus) and get involved in the teaching and go through the process here to become a competitive and solid team, I consider myself fortunate.

“I’m not looking for another job – I want to be with this team.”

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