VANCOUVER—Standing in the same hallway where one of the defining—and ugly—moments of his brief and tumultuous time with the Vancouver Canucks took place, John Tortorella seems more relaxed, if only a little.
The head coach of the high-flying Columbus Blue Jackets still has a fire that can burn white hot, but he’s just led a practice where a smile rarely left his face.
Sure, winning has something to do with it, but Tortorella is also a man taking a little more time to smell the roses after being pitched to the NHL’s scrap heap by the Canucks, unsure if he would ever get another chance.
“It’s part of the job, being fired,” said Tortorella. “It gives you a chance to step back and assess yourself—what you feel you did right, what you feel you did wrong—and just have a little bit of honesty within yourself.”
Another opportunity came earlier than most observers expected when the Blue Jackets fired Todd Richards after an 0–7 start last season. Columbus still missed the playoffs, but Tortorella laid the groundwork for a group that sits 21–5–4 through 30 games in 2016–17 in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.
Despite a successful career that included a Stanley Cup victory in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tortorella—who won his 500th game as an NHL coach last Sunday when Columbus beat Vancouver in overtime—joined the Blue Jackets with plenty of baggage.
His outbursts in the media and on the bench are legendary. But the 58-year-old Boston native makes no excuses for the demands he puts on players, and the Blue Jackets have responded in kind.
“If you work and you play to the way that he wants and the way that you’re capable of, then you’ll never have a better coach,” said Columbus captain Nick Foligno. “I definitely didn’t play to my abilities last year and we had some friction, and rightfully so.
“We had a great talk at the end of the season and it allowed me to come in here and show him what type of player I am. I think he’s respected that, I’ve respected him for allowing me to do that.”
The Blue Jackets have won a franchise record 10 in a row and have points in 12 straight. after the Dec. 19 win against the Los Angeles Kings.
“He wants everyone to be great every night,” said forward Scott Hartnell. “That’s what you want from the guy leading the ship.”
Cam Atkinson is tied for ninth in NHL scoring with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) as part of a balanced attack that has been spurred by a bounce-back start to the season from goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who leads the league with 19 wins.
Columbus also owns the top power-play unit and is getting big contributions from some unlikely sources, including a pair of rookies in defenceman Zach Werenski and centre Alexander Wennberg.
Grateful to be given another chance, Tortorella is allowing himself to soak up this season more than probably any other in his career as Columbus continues to surprise and impress.
“That’s fun to be around,” said Tortorella. “I know it doesn’t last forever, because there will be some bumps in the road, but I want to enjoy it with them.
“As you get older, a veteran coach, and you’ve gone through a lot of different things, I think something you need to show is your human side.”