John Tortorella is not a lunatic.
Some people in the hockey world would agree with that statement. Others would not.
Last week, Tortorella replaced Todd Richards as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that began the season 0-7-0. Since the firing, the Blue Jackets are 2-1-0 under the tantalizing Tortorella.
He's an intense coach. He's candid and straightforward. It doesn't matter if you're a superstar player or a fourth-line guy, he will give you an honest opinion about what he sees. There's a reason he won a Stanley Cup as a coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, a reason Team USA named him coach of its 2016 World Cup team. He understands and enjoys the tactical side of the game, but probably his biggest strength is crisis management.
Not everyone can play for him because he's demanding. But the players who learn to play for him are ultra-competitive and successful.
"He's earned his reputation," one former NHL coach said. "Most people see the tip of the iceberg, but there's more substance under the surface that he doesn't get credit for."
Tortorella has a strong presence in front of the players, and he has a clear understanding of how he thinks the game should be played. Those convictions sometimes can be interpreted negatively, but he's able to convey his message with confidence.
"He's a very intense individual," Blue Jackets veteran forward Scott Hartnell said. "Watching film, he calls guys out on film, which didn't happen too much before, even before I got here. It's a different atmosphere. It makes guys be held accountable, which is a great thing. Hopefully, it means a bunch more wins here. I wear my heart on my sleeve and he does the same thing, so it's great."
Tortorella's presence can be influential -- and it can be intimidating. As players get to know him and understand how he operates, the intimidation factor can go away. Players will learn that his approach is sincere. "I want the players talking to me," Tortorella said. "I want to listen to what they have to say because we're in a little bit of a rut and I'm still trying to get used to who they are. I want them to feel that they can come to the coaching staff and we can grow together here."
Some might think he has an agenda. He doesn't. He only wants to win and he'll do whatever it takes to do it.
"It's accountability," said Tortorella, who did some TV work for ESPN during last season's playoffs. "It's holding athletes, no matter who you are, accountable. You can use that word 'accountability' and it's a really nice word to use in the summertime, it sounds really good, but it's hard. You have to go through a process with your team, and individual athletes, to create that type of accountability, so we're in the middle of that process here."
He believes in facing challenges head on to get past them. If that involves conflict, so be it. Tortorella believes conflict brings people closer together when you go through challenging times. If you get on the other side of it, you can reach another level of respect from both sides.
"I'm not so worried about peoples' reputation," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "The character that they come with is much more important than their reputation, because reputation is often formed from sources that are not as familiar with the character of the person.
"Everything that I've come up with from my good sources that I trust have told me he's a good, honest coach who is willing to ... get involved so much that he's not afraid of his own reputation to help the players, help the team and get the most out of them."
It's safe to say Tortorella doesn't have a filter. If nothing else, he's completely honest and some people tend to take that the wrong way. And that's one of the reasons the Blue Jackets wanted him as their coach.
"I'm a big believer that honesty is the best policy. I'm sure he's rough around the edges every once in a while, but I don't mind that either," Kekalainen said. "I also think that some of the things that may have haunted him a little bit in the past, he's learned from them. We're getting a new and improved version of John Tortorella."
Before making the decision to change coaches, Kekalainen said he did his due diligence and spoke with players and personnel who had worked with Tortorella with the Lighting, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks.
"Most of the reports came back that players thought [Tortorella] was the best coach they ever had," Kekalainen said. "The winning and record speak for itself, but we wanted to get a coach that pushes players to get better and develop young players."
Kekalainen said he was looking for a coach who would be a good teacher and leader, and that's what impressed him about Tortorella.
"We've talked about a new voice and new directions when he came in, and you can certainly see that in his approach," Kekalainen said. "Every coach is different, and obviously he has a reputation as being a demanding coach who can push players and helping them get to the level to be the best they can be."
Tortorella is not afraid to do his job. If he has to make a hard decision because he thinks it's in the best interests of the team, he'll do it and he's not concerned if it means he puts himself in the line of fire. But it never influences his decision-making.
Veteran forward Brad Richards, now of the Detroit Red Wings, helped the Tampa Bay Lightning win a Stanley Cup with Tortorella as coach in 2004. When Richards hit the free-agent market in 2011, many teams were in the mix, but he decided to sign with the New York Rangers because Tortorella was the coach.
As close as they were, their relationship became strained during the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs when Tortorella sat Richards for the final two games of the second-round series against the Boston Bruins. After Boston won that series, Tortorella was fired. Benching Richards was seen as one of the decisions that cost Tortorella his job.
His time with the Vancouver Canucks wasn't pretty and he lasted just one season. Injuries didn't help and the lack of organizational depth also caused setbacks. The Pacific was also one of the toughest divisions in the league with the likes of the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks. And we can't forget the infamous incident in which Tortorella went to the Flames' dressing room between periods, apparently trying to get at coach Bob Hartley, incensed by a game-opening line brawl. Tortorella was suspended by the NHL for 15 days without pay.
Now that he's with the Blue Jackets, Tortorella will be the first to admit he has changed as a coach. He has adapted. He understands today's athletes are different. For an old-school guy, he has evolved with the game strategically. He loves the teaching aspect of the game. He's hands-on when it comes to the X's and O's.
"I think it's a perfect fit for him," one Eastern Conference executive said. "Columbus has a team capable of playing his preferred big-bodied style and it really helps him that they have been overhyped without ever having any success. He will use that to motivate him."
"I thought Todd did a good job with the team in the past and felt for him with the start to this season, especially given their success in the preseason," one Western Conference executive said. "That said, John is a very good coach and his attention to detail will certainly grab the attention of the entire group."
A Western Conference scout agreed.
"He will be fine in Columbus," the scout said. "They have a good team. I think they were reading how good they were all summer and did not do it on the ice to start the season. They need a guy to kick their ass a little bit."
Tortorella still has an old-school side to him. He feels it's beneficial to help players grow and mature and deal with the adversities that the game presents.
"I'm always trying to change," Tortorella said. "No matter what the perception is that I'm just some sort of idiot that won't change, I'm always trying to learn about the game. I think as a coach, if you don't, it's going to go by you. I think there is a little bit of a perception out there that's it's my way or the highway, which is totally false. I love listening to the players because they see the game differently and I learn from them, so that's what we're trying to do."
Off the ice and away from the rink, there's a different side to Tortorella, one that he doesn't allow the public to see. There are certain things that are close to his heart and he continually gives his time and resources to help others. He doesn't do it for the positive publicity. He does it because he's sincere.
Taylor Ryan, 13, has a rare form of brain cancer called histiocytosis. As part of the Garden of Dreams, Taylor participated in the Rangers' Shirts Off Our Backs ceremony at the end of the 2013 regular season. Afterward, she met Tortorella and the two made an instant connection.
Even though Tortorella was fired after that season, he still attended a fundraiser for Taylor that summer and the two families remain in constant communication.
"It's surreal," said Teresa Ryan, Taylor's mother. "He's just a guy and he is one of the nicest people we have ever met. We're really blessed to have him in our life. We'll text him and he'll say, 'I don't want to talk about me. Tell me how everyone there is.' I can't explain it to anybody. He's not who you see. He's truly a genuine person. I love him. I love his wife, everybody. He's like family now."
Last year, Taylor was having a tough time with her illness when Tortorella's wife, Christine, contacted Teresa Ryan. Without any publicity, the Tortorella family wanted to send the Ryans to Disney World for Christmas -- no questions asked.
"That was unreal," Teresa Ryan said. "They had asked us a couple of times if they could do that for us, and we said, 'Absolutely not. We cannot accept that. It's way too much.' It was very awkward.
"It was the perfect time for it. We needed those few days to just get away. I'll never forget when they told them."
Using FaceTime, the Tortorellas informed Taylor, and her younger sister, Sami, of their upcoming trip to the theme park.
"It was unbelievable," Teresa said. "It was unreal."
Back at the rink, Tortorella is the type of person who knows everyone who works in the building. He knows the Zamboni drivers and will go out of his way to help the equipment and training staffs.
"Torts was absolutely amazing with our staff," one former co-worker said. "He's extremely loyal. He would do anything for the guys that worked their tail off for him. To this day, he still keeps in touch and he's always looking to make sure everything is OK at home and with your family. He was demanding, but you knew where you stood. I definitely enjoyed working with him."
It's a given that Tortorella will push buttons. People will get upset with him. He'll push his players, but he'll also be the first one to defend those same players. He makes an impression on players both good and bad.
Some will say he's the biggest jerk on the planet. But many believe there's a method to his madness. He can bring players' games to a level that they didn't even know they had.
Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky played for Tortorella in New York and has witnessed that first-hand. Their time in New York was tumultuous, and after Tortorella was fired, Dubinsky said his relationship with the coach "fell apart." But both player and coach seem to have moved on.
"It's interesting too because where I was at in my career when I had him the first time, I was in a much different place than I am now in my career and in life," Dubinsky said.
"He's come in here and he's working on getting an understanding of what this group's like," Dubinsky added. "He's definitely started imposing himself, as far as the way he teaches and the way he coaches. ... He's got us headed in the right direction. He's got us working for him, and really working for ourselves. He's getting more out of guys and driving the ship. He's going to be a big asset for us."
John Tortorella is not a lunatic. He's passionate about everything he does, both on the ice and off it. He created this negative persona, but he's not what most people think he is.
"People should know the other side of him," Teresa Ryan said.