The locker room is sacred ground to Columbus Blue Jackets players after games, so John Tortorella chooses not to walk in. He didn’t address his team after thrilling overtime wins over Washington in Games 1 and 2 of this first-round playoff series, nor did he did enter the room after the Blue Jackets suffered bitter overtime losses in Games 3 and 5. Instead, he let his players decompress while he slipped into an adjacent office, removing his suit jacket before walking to his postgame news conference.
Of all the rituals that Tortorella practices this time of year, his absence in the dressing room helps explain a playoff philosophy that aims to break down the traditional power structure between coaching staff and players that exists during the regular season. “Come playoff time, we’re a group. We’re with them,” he said. And it helps reveal the evolution of Tortorella as he coaches in his ninth NHL postseason.
There have been shades of his old fiery self, including after the Capitals’ 4-3 win in overtime to take a 3-2 series lead on Saturday night, in which Tortorella guaranteed his team would return to Washington for Game 7. And while Tortorella will never surrender that part of his demeanor, players on both teams have noticed a coach who has balanced that fire with a more mellow approach this April.
He has his little ticks — aside from not hand-holding his players with rah-rah speeches after games, he also very rarely holds morning skates on game days. That’s a departure from the old-school Tortorella, who might have taken a harder line with his schedule as the bench boss in Tampa and New York earlier in his career. He’s made plenty of mistakes throughout the years — most notably in 2009, when he was suspended for a game after throwing a water bottle at a Washington fan during a playoff game between the Capitals and Rangers — and his silence after games is emblematic of the respect he’s developed for the emotional swings a team goes through in the postseason.
“I think that’s their time. I think a coach can make — and this coach has made some terrible mistakes through emotion both good and bad as far as after the game, so that’s when I leave them alone,” he said.
Tortorella also has spoke at length about his players enjoying themselves and having fun during what has become a grueling, bloody series. “Fun” hasn’t always been a part of his vernacular, especially in New York, when he was known to often spar with the media. He has certainly been chippy during this series, including after an ugly 4-1 loss in Game 4 at home, when he declined to go into details about his team’s performance and simply declared: “We sucked! We sucked!” But for every one of those moments, he’s countered often with lighthearted anecdotes about a young locker room that is growing up and becoming looser by the day.
Tortorella also has been quick to use humor. Earlier in the series, he chuckled at himself while telling reporters that Ian Cole “wears his teeth on his ear,” which wasn’t just another Tortorella idiom. He was being literal: Cole lost a few upper teeth after a slap shot hit him the face earlier this season and has to wear a “flipper,” which is essentially three teeth molded onto a retainer. He takes it out and puts in his ear like a pencil when he eats, which has created laughter between him and Tortorella at restaurants.
“I think he does a great job balancing it. The playoffs are a very emotional time, a very intense time. He certainly has those traits as a person and as a coach, but in a very good way,” Cole said. “I think he’s great at knowing when to be emotional and when to be levelheaded.”
Tortorella didn’t earn his reputation as one of the most colorful coaches in the league by being level-headed. There was, of course, the water bottle incident. He also got into a scuffle outside Calgary’s locker room when he was coaching Vancouver in 2014. Even this season, he was caught on video screaming at Washington’s Alex Ovechkin from the bench during a regular season game. There have been whole YouTube videos devoted to his rants with the media.
But even from afar, players in the Capitals locker room — including Brooks Orpik, who played for Tortorella as part of the U.S. national team and Tortorella called out for a controversial hit during the 2012 playoffs — have noticed Tortorella balance his emotions more.
“People talk about it all the time. I think you can notice a little bit of change. I can’t imagine he’s any less competitive than he’s ever been. He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever been around player or coach,” Orpik said. “Sometimes I think his competitiveness gets misinterpreted. Whatever people want to label him as a lunatic, or crazy or all that, I just think that’s his true competitiveness … his demeanor at press conferences is obviously a lot different.”
Tortorella still speaks without a filter. Earlier in the series, he was asked about forward Thomas Vanek, who was acquired by Columbus in a trade with Vancouver earlier this season. “Bull[crap],” Tortorella said about those people who don’t think Vanek can skate fast. Others thought that Tortorella and Vanek might not get along with their dominant personalities. When Vanek arrived in Columbus, he immediately had a meeting with Tortorella to get on the same page.
“I like that he’s old school,” Vanek said. “I could tell with Torts right away, he cares about each and every one guy in here. He wants guys to get better and get that winning feeling.”
The Blue Jackets didn’t have that winning feeling after Saturday’s crushing Game 5 loss. Most coaches would have walked into the locker room to try to massage the situation. Tortorella didn’t. He instead strolled to his postgame news conference – the place that has produced so many abrasive sound bites over the years – and did his best to stay composed. The session felt like it could have triggered a vintage Tortorella blowup. He said less than 100 words. He would say even less to his team.
“I won’t have to say a damn word to them,” he said. “We’ll be back here for Game 7.”
Read more on the Capitals-Jackets playoff series:
Nicklas Backstrom, the picture of the Capitals’ playoff pain, is now the image of their joy
John Carlson continues to build on a stellar postseason reputation
Young Capitals fan in viral ‘puck girl’ video has memorable day at Game 5
‘He’s a hockey player’: Capitals’ T.J. Oshie is playing hurt and still scoring
Capitals’ Andre Burakovsky needs surgery, out for rest of first round