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John Tortorella’s Got Mail

With a hot goalie and a 16-game win streak last year, the Columbus Blue Jackets finally earned the league’s respect. But a quick playoff exit left the young team and its infamous coach in search of a lot more this season.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

The 2017–18 NHL season begins this week, and with it comes a slew of new players, new front offices, and even a new team. And while familiar powerhouses like the Penguins and Blackhawks will once again be favored, the league’s hierarchy is changing. The Nashville Predators will be looking to defend their Western Conference crown, the youthful Oilers and Maple Leafs seem poised for deep playoff runs, and the new Vegas Golden Knights are ready to challenge any and all opponents (well, at least on Twitter). This could be a season that launches a new dynasty—that, or Pittsburgh could be the first NHL three-peat winner since the ’80s Islanders. We hope for the former, as we break it all down in our “Changing of the Guard” NHL Preview week.

For the past two summers, ever since John Tortorella took over the Columbus Blue Jackets, his players have received, via old-timey snail mail, a typed-up hype-up letter from their coach in July. “You can just hear his voice as you’re reading it,” says Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno, speaking by phone on the morning of Columbus’s final preseason game, a 3-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. “It’s summer, you’re thinking about your family and friends and what you’re going to do that night, and all of the sudden you’re brought back into the hockey world. And you know you better be ready for this season, and how hard it’s going to be.”

It’s fun to imagine Tortorella, his glasses perched at the end of his nose, whistling an old Woody Guthrie tune as he puts the finishing touches on his note. His Blue Jackets’ 2016-17 season was the best campaign in franchise history: The team finished with 50 wins and 108 points; they boasted the hottest goaltender in the league in Sergei Bobrovsky; and they lost zero games in the month of December, putting up a 16-game win streak from late November through early January that was one win short of tying them with the legendary 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins for the NHL’s longest-ever victory lap. They seemed poised to finally, finally break into the top echelon of the NHL, something that has eluded the team for the entirety of its existence.

But Tortorella’s correspondence this summer was more scary than merry; less a pat on the back than a kick in the pants. And this was no collaborative, workshopped piece of prose—it was pure, unfiltered Torts, straight from the tap. Brad Larsen, an assistant coach on the team, says in a phone conversation that he only knew the letter had been written and sent when he began to hear about “bits and pieces” of it through the grapevine.

Following the team’s charmed season, Tortorella homed in on the way it ended—with a buzzkill of a 4-1 early playoff exit to the eventual Stanley Cup repeat champion Penguins, just another first-round loss for a team that has never gone any further than that. “I’ll give you one line in the letter I sent to them this summer,” Tortorella told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline in an interview last month. “We played 10 days extra. That’s it. Ten days.”

The line was a typical Tortorella observation: seemingly grumpy, never quite satisfied, somehow simultaneously sharp and blunt. Tortorella’s eyes are framed by the kindliest-looking smile lines you’ve ever seen, but observing him during a game (or, even more so, in the press conference afterward) makes it apparent that they became ingrained, in part, from a whole lot of squinting in annoyed disbelief.

He won a Stanley Cup as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and has won two Jack Adams awards as the league’s top coach. He’s the first American to coach a thousand NHL games and the first to win 500. He’s a generous human who loves dogs, like, a lot. But for all his successes, his career has also been marked by near-constant controversy.

With the New York Rangers, where he coached from 2009 to 2013, he was almost better known for trading infamous barbs with beat writers, or for insisting that injury-prone skill players hurl their bodies in the path of slapshots, than he was for the fact the Rangers made the playoffs for four of his five years with the team (the one miss coming on the last day of the season, when the Rangers lost a game on on a shootout). His one-season gig with the Vancouver Canucks in 2013-14 and his head-coaching role with Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey did not go well, to put it mildly. In Vancouver, he tried to fight a whole team in the clown-car crush of an arena hallway (it wasn’t the team he was in charge of, to be fair). A couple of weeks before the 2016 World Cup, reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s protest, Tortorella, whose son was on his third deployment with the U.S. Army Special Forces, said that if a player of his wanted to sit for the anthem, “they will sit there the rest of the game.” (His resolve was never tested, and the Americans did not win a game in the tournament.) He’s an old-school guy who is, by his own admission, out of touch with basic societal tenets such as knowing who Sarah McLachlan is. Really, he probably has more in common with an archetypal difficult-but-magnetic college football coach than he does with a lot of the bland personalities within professional hockey.

But to hear Foligno tell it, Tortorella’s summer letter wasn’t out of line or surprising in any way. “You know, we knew how good of a season it was, but that we only played a few extra games,” Foligno says. “So it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, great year, let’s celebrate, that’s wonderful.’ It was like, ‘OK, there’s a lot of work ahead.’ We didn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve, so I think, for a lot of guys, it hit the nail on the head.”

The Blue Jackets are the youngest team in the NHL this year, with an average age of 24.82. When they open their season Friday night against the New York Islanders, four rookie players are expected to be in their lineup, including tricksy Sonny Milano (“Sonny from Massapequa” definitely leads the league in the obscure statistical category WFAN) and the imposing yet nimble Pierre-Luc Dubois.

Even the veteran core of the team that has been together for the past half-decade or so—including Foligno; last year’s leading scorer, Cam Atkinson; Brandon Dubinsky, who played for Tortorella with the Rangers only to find himself playing for him again in Columbus; and guys like Matt Calvert and Jack Johnson—isn’t exactly made up of graybeards; they’re hovering around age 30.

This year’s team will be without Brandon Saad, who put up 53 points last season and was traded back to the Blackhawks this offseason. But the Blue Jackets are excited about who they got back: Artemi Panarin, an exciting 25-year-old Russian who won the Calder Trophy in 2016 as the league’s top rookie, who has been slotted in as a first-line player for Columbus alongside playmaker Alexander Wennberg, and whose work ethic has already enthralled Tortorella.

Defensively, a particularly exciting potential pairing is 20-year-old second-year player Zach Werenski, who put up 47 points in his rookie campaign and was a Calder finalist, and Seth Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, who came to Columbus in a trade from Nashville in January 2016. In the Blue Jackets’ final game of that season, Tortorella benched Jones for a portion of the contest. “It was basically to let him know for the upcoming year,” Tortorella told, “‘Wake up and take control.’” When he let Jones back into the game, the defenseman had an assist on the overtime game winner. “That son of a bitch has jammed it to me,” Tortorella said with a laugh, according to ESPN.

But in a recent interview with Blue Jackets broadcasters, Tortorella described a less hardass thought process about how to steer the young guys on his team. Sometimes, he said, if he thinks practice is getting too structured, he’ll ask his coaching staff to step back. “I don’t want to map things out for them offensively,” he told the broadcasters. “I think we have to be really careful in how we teach this—maybe don’t teach them and just get out of their way.” He raised as a positive one preseason play in which both Werenski and Jones brought the puck up on offense, rather than leave one hanging conservatively back.

Before last season, he told The Boston Globe that following a summer of reflection and “self-coaching,” he wanted to focus more on encouraging skill and speed. To that end, he told Portzline last month, it was time to part ways with a “crusty veteran” like Scott Hartnell, who left the Blue Jackets this offseason because, Tortorella explained, “we’re going in a different direction … we’re always looking to try to add speed.” Things may change once the rigors of the NHL season set in, but for the time being this attitude toward the young guys is in contrast to his usual reputation.

For several seasons after the Blue Jackets traded captain and longtime franchise cornerstone Rick Nash to the New York Rangers in the summer of 2012, the team had no captain. “We were a team in transition,” Foligno says, “and I think it was almost the best way to really grow as a team, to not have that captain and not have all that responsibility fall on somebody so prematurely. It kind of actually allowed our team to fall into place.” Before the 2015-16 season, and before Tortorella took over as head coach of the team, Foligno was tapped by Columbus management for the position, following a year in which he scored a career-best 73 points. Up until then, his highest total had been 47.

One of Tortorella’s common phrases is “play the game the right way,” and Foligno certainly does: He’s a head-down kind of guy and the son of a former NHL player who grew up running around NHL and AHL locker rooms where his dad played and coached. (Larsen has known Foligno for a long time, and recalls that when he was in the minors, playing for Foligno the elder, young Nick used to skate with the team after practice; when Nick made the NHL with the Ottawa Senators, he once tapped Larsen in the pads before a faceoff to tell him “My dad says hi.”) But after the 2015-16 team had its 0-8 start, and continued to flounder for much of the season, Tortorella met with Foligno to deliver a cringingly forthright message.

“I don’t think you can do it,” Tortorella said to Foligno about his ability to remain captain. It wasn’t personal, it was business; Tortorella felt that the more Foligno had tried in vain to right the sinking ship, the more it had affected his own play. “Unfortunately it was just such a terrible year that I don’t think either of us got off on the right foot towards what we could do for each other,” Foligno now says. “He was very matter-of-fact, and I learned that right away about him: He’s very point blank. But I think it helped. He pushed the right way, I think.”

Tortorella gave Foligno a chance to stay on as captain, and he responded last season with 51 points as the team surged through the winter. At the NHL Awards, Foligno received the Mark Messier Leadership Award as well as the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for his humanitarian work. And as the Blue Jackets prepare to open their regular-season schedule, the captain has an additional new responsibility: He’ll be playing center, rather than his usual wing, in order to give the team more depth and experience down the middle and allow his newer teammates more room to develop their games without the pressures of the position. (The Blue Jackets have long been rumored to be pursuing Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene in the trade market, but they’ve yet to find a suitable deal.) Foligno will have lots of young eyes watching his example, both from the bench and alongside him on the ice.

“The best way to be captain is to lead by example,” Larsen says. As an NHL player, “I had Joe Sakic in Colorado for years, and to watch him, or Ray Bourque, Patrick Roy, Rob Blake—it wasn’t that they were rah-rah guys, they led by example.”

Tortorella’s straight-talk nature can yield hilarious results, if you’re not the target of his forthrightness. In New York, his assessment of defenseman Anton Stralman was: “I didn’t know who the hell he was when we got him, and when I first saw him, I didn’t like him.” (Tortorella said this while praising the player.) In Vancouver, he called David Booth “a weird dude” and after one loss remarked: “I thought our best forward was David Booth, which is good for him but not good for us.” A couple of years later, Booth said the memories of playing for Tortorella still gave him nightmares.

When 23-year-old Blue Jacket Josh Anderson held out of training camp this year over a contract dispute, Tortorella dismissed the tactic as “shenanigans” and “stupidity.” When Anderson and the team came to an agreement, and Tortorella was asked his feelings on it, his response was: “I have no feelings.” Dubinsky, who had a similar holdout while with the Rangers, recalled getting similar treatment from his coach at the time. “Torts called me an idiot in the media,” he said, almost fondly.

But there’s some level of calculation in how Torts interacts with his players, and he doesn’t always come down on them in the same way. One of the biggest contributors to last year’s successful regular season, Bobrovsky, was also a culprit in the playoffs going sideways. His .931 save percentage was tops in the NHL and earned him Vezina Trophy honors (and likely helped Tortorella win the Jack Adams) but dropped off dramatically in the playoffs to just .882. Tortorella opted not to pull him, a decision he talked about to Portzline. “I just have gotten to understand Bob better,” Tortorella said. “I know how proud he is. ... It hurt us in the playoffs, but it really bodes well for us as our season starts because I know how that guy thinks and I know how ready he’s going to be.”

Players like Foligno and Dubinsky have figured out that there’s an art to dealing with Tortorella: Don’t try to hide, don’t be afraid to stand your ground, and, as Foligno explains, stay in constant contact, because Tortorella’s whims frequently change. “He’s learned to become a better coach,” Foligno says, “and knows the aspects where he can’t push all the time. But he still has a way about him that gets the most out of his players, and that’s all you want from a coach.” Tortorella often enjoys pushback; recently, he explained that the team’s method of calculating and evaluating scoring chances, which Larsen is heavily involved with and says Tortorella brought to the team, allows players to disagree with the coaches’ conclusions. “It creates a healthy dialogue between player and coach,” Larsen says.

Still, a number of Tortorella’s go-to mantras have and likely will always remain unchanged. Since Tortorella’s Tampa Bay days, “Safe is death” has been a constant refrain. So has another quote that hangs in the Blue Jackets locker room on a highly-visible sign: “Good is the enemy of great.” It’s the first sentence in a how-to-succeed-in-business book by Jim Collins called, appropriately, Good to Great that Tortorella loves to bring up in conversation. Tortorella has, for a long time, loved to describe playing a game of hockey as “going about your business,” as if it’s a bunch of bespectacled accountants moving around the ice like purposeful commuters making their way through Grand Central Terminal.

It kind of is, though: “He creates that workmanlike, businesslike culture,” Larsen says. “That hardworking mentality. It is such a grind in the NHL, that if you don’t treat it like that, as he likes to say, ‘It can get too good to you.’” And this season, just to make sure that no one thinks too hard about the highs of last season’s win streak, Tortorella is there to remind his team that there’s much more they can and should accomplish; that they play in one of the league’s most competitive divisions; that the Penguins will always be looming; and that despite all the good things they did last season, the Blue Jackets only made it those extra 10 damn days.