I don’t think anyone can question that John Tortorella is a top-notch coach. He changed the culture of a perennial last place team in Tampa and won the Stanley Cup in 2004. He came to the Rangers mid-season in 2009 and has transformed the Blueshirts into a hardworking blue collar defensive team. The kind of scrappy group that wins on guts and grit. The kind that New York loves to embrace.
Historically Tortorella has been known to be outspoken and criticize his players. He isn’t afraid to make unpopular decisions (see the benching of the team’s leading scorer, Marian Gaborik, for not clearing the puck properly in Game 2). His passion and no-nonsense approach, however, doesn’t appear to bother his current team. Back in April, defenseman Ryan McDonagh and center Mike Rupp praised their coaches’ passion to Katie Strang of ESPN NY.
“It just shows his passion for the team and his passion for winning,” McDonagh said. “He’s been intense with us and honest the whole time. What he’s saying to us, he’s saying to you guys. There’s no games with him.”
“I like the fact that he is passionate about the players on this team. I think it goes a long way in this room,” Rupp Added.
The key to leading a group in any sport is managing stakeholders. I don’t think coaches are all that different in terms of effectively implementing a playbook and style. Their main role is to get their group to buy into a system, motivate and hold everyone accountable. Clearly Tortorella is doing that with the Rangers, with the Gaborik incident being a perfect recent example.
Not all stakeholders, however, are happy with Tortorella. The media has begun to grumble due to his short, uninformative and curt postgame press conferences. At the beginning of the postseason they were annoying but funny. Now that we are 16 games into this run, the answers are getting shorter and more abrupt. Most last less than 50 words, involve yes or no answers, and he refuses to expand on any of his decisions. He tells everyone he is going to “keep it in the (locker) room.” It basically adds another layer to the already thick wall that exists between media and players. It becomes difficult for the writers and analyst to do their jobs.
Many media members finally had enough after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday. Neil Best of Newsday, former center Ray Ferraro (now with TSN), and Mike Milbury, a former coach who now works for NBC, had some of the more interesting things to say.
Ferraro, who worked with Tortorella at TSN tweeted he’s “better than this.” “I’m tired of the act. Just ridiculous,” Milbury added. Best tweeted that Tortorella’s playoff non-interviews were “amusing shtick for a while. Now they have become annoying and unprofessional.” He went on to say that Patriots coach Bill Belichick is more cooperative. That is quite a statement.
A coach can take on the media in this town without repercussion when they are winning. Writers are easy to please. Give them a good team that allows them the ability to write poetic narratives and they will let most egregious behavior slide. Jerry Manuel was a disaster during his Mets tenure, but it wasn’t until he started to grow edgy with the media did they acknowledge the obvious issues he had on the field and in the clubhouse. Joe Girardi isn’t rude in the mold of Tortorella, but you rarely get an honest answer out of him. He even made a fool of himself last August when he lied to Jack Curry of the YES Network after being questioned about a dispute with his pitcher in the dugout the cameras caught. The Yankees make the postseason and win so Girardi’s gaffes usually blow over.
The media can be a huge nuisance. There are far too many instances where writers ask redundant and poorly constructed questions. There is also tons of lazy analysis thanks to the need to feed page views in a 24/7/365 internet sports landscape. New York adds complexity because of the size of the market. I understand the frustration showed by a Tortorella, especially after a tough playoff loss.
With that said, the media is a stakeholder that needs to be addressed. Unless the NHL or Rangers are banning them from covering the team the rest of the postseason (some would argue that MSG would like that!), these postgame news conferences aren’t going away. By behaving this way Tortorella is creating an unnecessary distraction for his club. The talk on Thursday was more about the postgame conference than anything that happened on the ice. In some ways it puts the focus on the coach and takes pressure off the players. On the other hand it could become an unnecessary distraction. Taking a contentious relationship with the media is a double-edged sword. It could work or could be disastrous. You just can’t predict how it’s going to end up.
To be fair, it appears that Tortorella does open up during his conference calls. He went into detail about the Gaborick situation with reporters yesterday. “I think a pretty important play last night is really a defensive play,” he said during the call. “I thought the second goal they scored at the end of the (second) period to tie it up was a really big play in that game. And that’s not an offensive play, that’s a defensive play. And we get hurt there.”
The reporters got their answer, just 24-hours later. Couldn’t he say that during the postgame?
Tortorella’s first and most important job is to keep his players focused on the goal of winning the Stanley Cup. How he handles the media is the least of their concerns right now. Where this could become problematic is down the road. The media will allow this behavior to continue without repercussion as long as the Rangers are winning. Once they don’t, you can bet they will fish for an anonymous quote disparaging Tortorella’s style. That’s when they get their pound of flesh.
Remember, he burnt out his Tampa club very quickly after the ’04 Stanley Cup. He’s in his third season in New York so the clock is ticking. I don’t see Tortorella’s style lasting a decade or longer here. He’s not Mike Keenan in terms of burnout, but I don’t see him doing an Al Arbour-type tenure with the Rangers.
Tortorella is going to manage his team and the media his own way. No one is going to change him. It’s working, as the Rangers are 7 wins away from their Stanley Cup goal. If this magical season ends in disappointment, you can bet the media will use it as an opportunity to get their revenge on the shoddy treatment. Their pen always has the last laugh.
You always know where you stand with him. You shouldn’t be surprised by his behavior in news conferences. The problem is the reporters can fight back, as well. When they do it’s usually a mob mentality. There are four major newspapers and various internet sites that can hack away 24/7. They will if John Tortorella and his club doesn’t come through.
It’s a double-edged sword. Eventually it does come back and get you.