One man’s perspective on dealing with John Tortorella for four years
The old press room in Madison Square Garden was a fitting setting for my introduction into covering John Tortorella. The tiny quarters had a suffocating, claustrophobic feel. The room was encased by cement bricks and filled with 20 or so metal folding chairs that faced a stage that held a table and chair where Tortorella would sit and answer – or usually, not answer – questions from the assembled media.
If a prison had a press conference room, this would have been it.
It was September 2009, and my extensive professional hockey writing experience totaled one Western Conference Final game and four Stanley Cup Final games, all of which were contested at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit the previous summer. I found myself covering these very important games after writing stories off conference calls in the earlier rounds that the usual writers couldn’t do because of travel situations.
It turned out my reward for that three weeks of work was four years covering the scariest coach in the NHL.
There’s no way to ever relay the terror that comes with that first press conference involving Tortorella. I had seen the videos, heard the stories and knew what to expect. Seeing as how it was my first day, I planned to simply sit back and watch the beat writers ask their pre-game questions and see how it went.
As became his routine during the season, Tortorella hobbled into the room with Rangers PR star John Rosasco at his side. Tortorella had a hip issue during the season that he would get corrected afterward, but it did nothing to soften his gruff personality. Tortorella walked up the three stairs, examined the chair and table as if it didn’t belong there, sat down, and looked out onto the gathered reporters with a long, deep sigh as if he were an 11-year-old and the human beings in the room were green beans he had to finish if he was going to be allowed to play video games later.
Even without asking a question, I could see where Tortorella’s reputation came from. He wasn’t particularly disrespectful on this occasion, but it certainly gave one a glimpse into how he viewed reporters. “Get me out of here, JR,” was always the primary thought in Tortorella’s head. And after answering some questions about expectations for the season and line combinations, something he did early in his time in New York, he hobbled off the stage and back to the one place he felt comfortable – the locker room.
It took me about two weeks to build the courage to ask a question. I had what I felt was a good feel for the man at that point, so now I just had to step up to the plate and do it. After a handful of games, it became easy to identify the people who regularly asked questions and those who sat on their hands, and I didn’t want to be in the latter group. What’s to be afraid of anyway? What’s the worst that can happen?
I can assure all the tough guys and brave women out there who feel the media are cowards and if you were there, you’d ask Tortorella all the tough questions. Imagine being in high school and trying to build the intestinal constitution to ask out your biggest crush, except instead of her just saying no, she says no with a laugh, does so in front of all your peers and with cameras rolling and it winds up on the Internet forever.
That’s the game. That’s the pressure.
Finally, I asked about Henrik Lundqvist after a win, the softest softball to ever be lobbed at a coach, and he answered like any normal coach would. I wondered if he did so because of my obvious nerves and the fact my question sounded like it was rehearsed in my head for 30 minutes – it was – and took pity on me.
But just like that, I felt indoctrinated into the Tortorella’s world. I wasn’t a beat reporter in the strictest sense – I didn’t travel for road games and made trips to the practice facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., a handful of times a year – but I was there for all the home games and every game and practice for the postseason, but I felt part of the group that lived in light fear of the unprovoked Wrath of Torts.
As the years went past, it seemed that Tortorella’s disgust with reporters only grew. Everyone loves to point to his tête-à-têtes with Larry Brooks, but that was only the public tip of the iceberg. Not that Tortorella was ever an open book during his first two seasons with the Rangers, but it seemed that entering his third year he decided to rip out all the pages of his book.
I have distinct memories of Tortorella in the cement prison cell discussing why he liked Brandon Dubinsky on that line or Vinny Prospal on this line, but lineup questions as the years progressed where rejected with extreme prejudice. Tortorella famously would never talk about the other team or injuries, but his inconsistency with the latter was something that never seemed to register in his mind. He never understood that reporters have a job to do, and one of them is asking about injuries, even if you’ve said in the past you’re not answering them.
The grave dancing that took place after Tortorella was fired was met with mixed reactions: some saw it as the inevitable result for years of bullying reporters, others saw it as tasteless whining from people who couldn’t handle someone not answering dumb questions.
If Tortorella only gave one-word answers for moronic questions – I can probably relate a dozen stories about reporters asking why he used a timeout in a situation where it was evident he wanted to get his players a breather because of an icing during an extended shift – it would be one thing, but he could be a prick when it came to fair questions, tough questions or even softball questions he felt we writers should already know the answer to.
Tortorella was a walking contradiction – he never wanted to offer any information, and yet he’d scold you for a question because you didn’t have the basic information any other coach would have offered on multiple occasions in the past.
Another reason to cut slack to those asking dumb questions of Tortorella is on top of the fear that comes with dealing with a bully, this particular bully also had a series of ground rules that changed the normal dynamic between coach and reporters. Instead of just thinking of a question and asking it, you had to think of a question, decide if he thought it was appropriate, and if it wasn’t, think of another and repeat the process.
Some of the many rules you had to follow during a Tortorella media availability included:
1. Don’t ask about the other team.
2. Don’t ask about injuries.
3. Don’t ask about the lineup.
4. Don’t ask about individual players after a loss.
To avoid lineup questions, he had JR sending texts to beat reporters on gamedays about the lineup. Texts reading, “Lundqvist in net. Boyle out, Miller in” were Tortorella’s childish way of trying to avoid a question about the lineup, but all they did was invite pre-game questions about why Miller was in and Boyle was out. A big part of Tortorella’s problem was he always believed he was the smartest guy in the room during a press conference, when really he was never in the top 10.
Of course, these were rules Tortorella himself would deviate from.
Sometimes without prompting, he’d go into how well someone on the other team played, but a follow-up question about that player would yield nothing.
Just this past season, Tortorella would not go into the specifics involving Brad Richards’ injury stemming from a hit from behind by Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta, yet talked openly about a foot injury that was hampering Chris Kreider. Sometimes he had to talk to Rammer, other times he didn’t, apparently.
Perhaps Tortorella’s most famous bit of prickery came during the second round of last year’s playoffs when Pat Leonard asked a question about bumping Derek Stepan to a higher line, when Tortorella cut him off and said, “Stop coaching Pat.”
Grave dancing isn’t my thing, but it’s hard to not allow some of it from those who had been crapped on for four-plus seasons.
My biggest beef with Tortorella wasn’t him giving one-word answers when someone was in need of a quote. If you phrase your question where the answer simply could be yes or no, then that’s what you deserve. It happened to me several times, and I’d either follow it or up or go about my business, as he liked to say. While I’m about 88 percent sure Tortorella didn’t know my name, he never once disrespected me.
But it didn’t make it any better when he disrespected others.
During the 2012 playoffs, Brian Boyle suffered a concussion (another injury Tortorella simply offered to the media the night in happened) and missed three games. He returned for the Game 2 of the second round, a game the Rangers lost 3-2 to Washington. Boyle played reasonably well in his third-line role: He had one shot in 15 minutes but lost the faceoff that led to Alex Ovechkin’s game-winning power-play goal in the third period.
It was the third or fourth question of the postgame press conference in which Tortorella was clearly pissed off because, you know, the media lost Game 2: “How did Brian Boyle look out there?”
It’s his first game back, he’s been in a big part of the lineup all season, it’s a question someone was going to ask, but for this unsuspecting, unfortunate soul, it was him.
“I’m not answering that question from YOU.”
It’s hard to truly convey in words just how hateful and demeaning that sentence was. He really laid the YOU on thick, too, saying it as though if someone else had asked that harmless question, he would’ve answered, but unfortunately a complete moron I don’t respect asked so go fuck yourself, asshole.
This was the exact moment I made the executive decision to never ask Tortorella another question. It was a futile endeavor, anyway. Why waste breath on him when he’s only going to tell you what he wants to tell you and I can get better insight about the psyche of the team from guys like Boyle, Marc Staal or Dan Girardi.
“John Tortorella is a good guy, that’s just how he is with the media.” “That’s just who he is. He doesn’t play favorites.” “He does charity work so how can he be a bad person?”
Those are three of the most prominent defenses of Tortorella, all of which come across as laughable.
Is there anything better than interviews with the neighbors of a mass murderer? A man or woman looking into the news camera and talking about how great that neighbor was. Oh man, he was so quiet and kept to himself, but he kept his yard really clean and never bothered anyone. He was a pretty great neighbor, all things considered.
The people he murdered, however, probably have a different opinion about the man.
I can’t judge a person by who he is purported to be when I’m not around; I can only judge his actions – four years’ worth – when I’m in his presence. The fact that Tortorella’s heart is poured into a charity involving dogs – not people, dogs – really captures his essence beautifully. The notion that charity work automatically makes someone a good person is like saying someone with a college degree has to be intelligent. There are plenty of exceptions.
Tortorella’s combative nature with those reporters he sees every day seemed to dissolve away at the sight of a big-time national writer at one of his press conference. “Hi, Pierre,” Tortorella would say with a smile as he stepped to the microphone. “Hello, Darren,” Tortorella would offer to his pal. If an old TSN cohort or someone with a national presence was in the room, the made-up rules to insulate himself from the media would go by the way side. If one of them would ask about the lineup, he’d muster something far beyond the one-word answer the beat guys would’ve received.
I’m not a psychiatrist, but Tortorella is the first person I’ve ever met who I believed had both an inferiority and superiority complex. He arrived in New York seemingly petrified of what the New York media would do to him, so he took preemptive steps to guard against them, when in reality, a standard coach/media relationship would have served him better. Like any bully, Tortorella deep down was afraid of the media, and out of that was born a four-year adversarial relationship that wasn’t even necessary in the first place.
Eventually, Tortorella stops being scary. For me anyway, it went from asking a scary coach a question to asking your crazy uncle a question to I’m going to avoid the crazy homeless man altogether and walk on the other side of the street.
Tortorella slowly devolved from curiosity to side show to full-on clown. His demeanor made him an unnecessary part of the job for many writers, and his demeanor eventually made him completely unnecessary to the New York Rangers.
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