In the NHL, a coach’s role is to get to most out of his players. That’s through strategy and system, a structured gameplan, and effective communication.
John Tortorella has been around long enough in the league to have seen many elements evolve. That includes communication between players and coaches and how to effectively make the connection between the two to have a strong working relationship.
“I remember, I used to be back early in my career, I’d dot every I and cross every T. I almost wanted the game, I wanted to predict the game,” Tortorella said on Friday at his introduction as the Flyers new head coach. “I wanted them to move the way I wanted them to move in certain situations and kind of prepared the team that way.
“I think I’ve kind of come full circle here, players need to express themselves. You need structure. I think one of the most important attributes of a head coach is to find and teach the structure away from the puck. I work at that. I kind of get coined as that defensive guy. You can coin me anyway you want; you can say what you want about me. That is a huge part of winning.”
Part of Tortorella’s job at ESPN this past season has allowed him the opportunity to hear other coaches and players talking about the game from a different perspective. As the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning compete for the Stanley Cup, Tortorella is taking note of how teams like that are setting a standard for how they want to play.
“As you see in the playoffs right now, as you listen to some of the players talking about it in the playoffs right now. It’s a huge part of being who you want to be and I think it really develops a standard of being a hard team to play against,” Tortorella said. “On the other side of that, I think you have to get out of the way. I do think we overcoach at times. It’s something 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 that they have. I need to allow them to play, but it’s going to be a two-way street.
“It needs to be a two-way street, just show me that you’re willing to give us something away from the puck. Not going to turn you into a checker, but you got to show me and more importantly show your teammates that you’re willing to do some of the other stuff as an offensive guy away from the puck. Then you have something and I think that’s what develops the right camaraderie of a hockey club.”
For Tortorella, that starts at the top with the players that you want to demonstrate the attitude of living up to the standard and being a hard team to play against.
“It’s kind of a give and take there,” Tortorella said. “It’s a teaching process as we go through. Already made some calls today, having some meetings next week with some of the guys, to start this teaching of a standard and the mentality of what we’re going to be. It’ll be a conversation. It’s going to be a back-and-forth conversation because I want to learn about them as they will learn about me.”
Tortorella also discussed being able to evolve as a coach. For many years at his previous stops in Tampa, New York, and Vancouver, Tortorella had current Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan on the bench with him as an associate coach. They remain great friends and discuss the communication aspect of coaching.
“Mike Sullivan and I have talked a lot about this subject. It needs to be a two-way street. It needs to be. I think coaches get tunnel vision sometimes. Listen, I’m one of them,” Tortorella said. “That’s where we have to check ourselves a little bit. Even though you want to maybe jump in on a conversation, maybe just stop for a couple minutes and continue to listen. It’s a different athlete right now. That’s a huge part of a coach’s responsibility is to work with the different athletes as you go through. As long as I’ve been in the league, I’ve seen you go up and down different avenues of what the different athletes are. We have to make that adjustment.
“Having said that, there is a fine line there. You can’t allow it to run amuck. That when you get into problems and you lose that standard, you lose that team concept of the merit of playing in the National Hockey League, of becoming a pro. That’s basically what we’re talking about here, is going through these conversations, going through these teaching situations, and developing a pro.”
Tortorella admitted to mistakes in the past when it comes to this, evolving in how you communicate and how you get to developing players as individuals and the team standard.
“I don’t know what I enjoy most, trying to develop the hockey player or trying to develop the person because it’s pretty cool,” Tortorella said. “We have to make changes as coaches as athletes are different. I’m looking forward to listening. I was a little bit stubborn back in the day, but I think I’ve learned. I’ve learned watching other coaches and I’ve just through seeing the progression of what the athlete is.
“I’m not in the business to embarrass people. I’m not in the business to run people out of organizations. I will tell you all right now, my job is to push athletes to levels they are not used to getting to and I’m going to do that. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve pushed too hard at certain times and I’ve made mistakes along the way. That is my job. I’m going to do it fairly and I’m always going to do it honestly. They will always know why.”
Tortorella’s focus is going to be on how the team plays without the puck, attacking the game and providing more support for their goaltender.
“I do believe the first thing, as far as on ice that I need to attack is the play away from the puck,” Tortorella said. “I think we need to give Carter [Hart] a little bit more support as far as how we play around him. Allow him to really get himself into the National Hockey League. He’s 23. I’m not making any criticisms of prior play, but this is how you go about it.
“You know all the things that come with that starts with teaching play away from the puck. We’ll go through some experiences, as you go through it, that’s when you start becoming who you are. The trick for the coaching staff is to get individuals to do that and then you get them to join in as a team. That’s when you have a group of men that you know when you go into that locker room, there’s belief and there’s some hardness.”
After a year off from coaching, Tortorella is aware that the game continues to change and evolve and is focused on his own evolution as a coach. A year of observation while away from coaching has him feeling prepared to be back on the bench.
“I learned a lot, especially watching how other coaches handle themselves. I think you can't be someone else, you need to have your own personality. I learned a lot from listening to other coaches talk about their team and what they're looking for,” Tortorella said. “This couples kind of with analytics. I think we get blinders on as coaches. I think analytics, it helped me kind of verify some things are going really well with the team. I thought they were but that really verifies it. It also helps you see ‘crap, we kind of miss this’ and the numbers show that to me.
“Coaches talk about all that stuff. Not being in the pressure of it, not being just worried about your team. I got to watch other teams, other coaches, other players and learn that way. Now I get to coach this damn team, the Flyers. I'm so lucky to spend a year away and come to this organization, an organization that I truly respect.”