March 22, 2023
Tortorella's return to Columbus focused on game, not sentimentality

Tortorella’s return to Columbus focused on game, not sentimentality

FORHEES, NJ — John Tortorella made it very clear that he is not interested in discussing the past.

The Philadelphia Flyers coach enjoyed his six seasons in the same role with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but doesn’t spend much time contemplating his return to the Nationwide Arena when the Flyers kick off Thursday (7:00 p.m. ET; BSOH, NBCSP, ESPN+) to play against the Blue Jackets , SN NOW).

“I’m going back there to coach a hockey team,” Tortorella said Wednesday. “I have so many friends there, it’s a great place. But I’m going back to the Flyers coach and trying to win.”

It will be his first game in Columbus since stepping down as coach on May 10, 2021, and while he doesn’t have much room for sentimentality, he has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the Columbus hockey community.

“I find [the fans] I’ll appreciate him and what he’s done for the organization and the community and all of that,” said Jarmo Kekalainen, Blue Jackets general manager. “I think he’ll be given a warm welcome.”

Tortorella is the most successful coach in Blue Jackets history with a record of 227-166-54. They made the Stanley Cup Playoffs four times, and in 2019 Columbus won its first postseason series, a four-game win over the Presidents’ Trophy winner Tampa Bay Lightning. He also won the Jack Adams Award for NHL Coach of the Year in 2016-17 after leading the Blue Jackets to a franchise-high 108 points (50-24-8).

He worked as an analyst for ESPN last season.

“He’s one of the biggest reasons we’ve been so successful in his six years as a coach,” Flyers said Cam Atkinson, who played with the Blue Jackets for six seasons under Tortorella. “And of course it wasn’t overnight, but he made us all think the same way and believe in each other. We started winning games and making the playoffs four or five years in a row. He’s the most accomplished manager in Blue Jackets history and I think it’s going to be a great night for him.”

The biggest influence Tortorella had with the Blue Jackets was the culture and building a standard of the game. Prior to his arrival, Columbus had made the playoffs twice in 14 seasons.

“As soon as he showed up, he changed the culture from day one,” Atkinson said. “We started building this brick-by-brick mentality. He weeded out the guys who didn’t want to be there, who didn’t want to work hard. He didn’t care who you were, how much money you made, or how old or young you were. He just demanded hard work and he got it from his best players and from every player.

“Every team wants to win the Stanley Cup, but just to make the playoffs and earn our respect in the league that every time you play the Blue Jackets, it’s going to be a tough game. He built that culture over the six years he was there just with his core types and lucky for me I was part of that group.

Tortorella said he couldn’t compare the build-up effort in Columbus to his previous time in Philadelphia, which started with a 7-3-2 start.

“I see it as trying to go about our business every day and trying to define and become a standard,” he said. “I’m not going to assign it to any other team that I’ve coached. It’s a completely different type of situation, different city, different situations. So for me it’s a separate unit.”

The Flyers said they could see similar traits to the Blue Jackets teams Tortorella coached.

“Playing against Columbus all those years, it was such a tough team to play against and you knew exactly what they were and how hard they would work to play against them,” Forward said Scott Laughton said. “I think we’re trying to build that identity.”

Tortorella, whose 680 wins in 20 seasons as coach of the Lightning, New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks, Blue Jackets and Flyers is the most by a United States-born coach, built that identity in Columbus, and fans will have a chance to do so get thank him for that thursday.

Whether Tortorella wants the attention or not.

“I know ‘Torts’ on a more personal level and he’s not a softie by any means, but he’s … an emotional guy,” Atkinson said. “I’m sure he’s looking forward to getting it over with. He’s the type who doesn’t like getting credit, but he deserves it. I’m sure he will definitely be a bit emotional.”

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