Hockey players grow up wanting to be hockey players.
One hockey player grew up wanting to be a hockey coach.
His name is John Torchetti, and Thursday in Dallas the kid who grew up sitting in the first row of the first balcony at Boston Garden analyzing players and systems will make his NHL playoff coaching debut for the Wild against Lindy Ruff of the Stars.
Torchetti has coached 66 games in three stints as an interim coach. Over 18 years, Ruff has coached 1,518 games with two teams, including the fifth-most regular-season games in NHL history (1,411) with the fifth-most regular-season victories (702).
The Stars have a vast edge in the experience department, but Torchetti is no newbie. In the past 23 years he has coached at every level in every capacity (even Russia), winning championships, Coach of the Year trophies and a Stanley Cup as a Chicago assistant. He has taken bits and pieces from everybody he has worked alongside, from Joel Quenneville and Rick Dudley to Mike Keenan to Craig Ramsay.
And in between, he has driven cabs in North Carolina and sold sausages and pizza outside Fenway Park to make ends meet.
“I’m very, very proud of him,” said Torchetti’s 80-year-old mother, Barbara, who will travel to Minnesota with a large crew to see her son coach Games 3 and 4. “He has worked so hard to get here. I’ll be a nervous wreck. I always am during every game.”
While mom’s eyes will mostly focus on her sometimes manic-looking son working the bench, John Torchetti will have his eagle look fixated on the ice. He’s fulfilling a lifelong dream, but that alone doesn’t satisfy him enough.
He’s not just happy to be here.
His objective is to somehow make sure the Zach Parise-less Wild puts up a fight against the hungry conference champs. He has worked hard to try to get the Wild to play “the right way” and even admits a big chore was to get captain Mikko Koivu and assistant captains Parise and Ryan Suter “tighter.”
“There’s so much more I want to peel off to get to where I want to go,” Torchetti said. “Where we’re playing consistently every night, where our offense is in that structure every night, where we’re confident, where we’ve got D involved more, and the power play’s doing the right things every night. We want to be dangerous every shift. And I think we can be that.”
That could all be easier said than done for a Wild team that has been frustratingly streaky during Torchetti’s two months at the helm since replacing a fired Mike Yeo. The Wild was a league-best 15-6-1 in Torchetti’s first 22 games. But the team that won Torchetti’s first four games, then lost three, then won four, then lost four of five, then won six … naturally closed the season with five consecutive losses.
An early start
Torchetti is the youngest of five siblings (one brother and three sisters) and has a longtime girlfriend, Rhonda. And he is a Boston guy, through and through.
His family is tight, something that manifested itself with daily 5 o’clock dinners growing up, gigantic Sunday feasts and softball games. He lives for his nieces and nephews and still spends every summer in Marshfield, Mass., where he stays at his mom’s house.
His dad, John Sr., 78, used to have Bruins season tickets. He got rid of them the day Bobby Orr signed with Chicago. But at 10 years old, John Jr. knew he wanted to coach.
Torchetti would examine how Orr skated and try to ascertain why players took certain routes to pucks or passed at certain times. He watched the coaches as much as the players.
His dad sometimes would drop him at the arena and say, “All right, I’ll see you at the saloon after.” Torchetti would sneak behind the Bruins bench … and study.
There were many school nights when Torchetti was supposed to be sleeping that dad would come home, touch the TV, see it was warm and ask his son, “Are you sure you’re not up?”
Pops built a rink in Torchetti’s Jamaica Plain backyard growing up. Torchetti would develop into a prep star who set state scoring records, then a minor league sniper.
His skating kept him from advancing, but he would finish checks and score scrappy goals in the minors.
“Once you gave me the puck, you weren’t getting it back,” he said. “It’s going to the net. I was a shooter.”
At age 12, Torchetti got into the “pizza business” at his brother-in-law’s shop.
“That’s when I learned how to toss the pies around,” Torchetti said. “I used to go there right after school, take the train, then they’d give me a ride home at 11 o’clock. I always just love making pizzas.”
He once owned a pizza place inside a Winston-Salem, N.C., bar and for eight summers worked at the old Pizza Pad in Kenmore Square near Fenway and Boston University. As a teenager, he started a sausage stand that he’d take all over Boston for big events.
“I would do Fourth of July [at Fenway],” Torchetti said. “I mean you do a Fourth of July, you could probably make 10 grand in just one day.”
He’s still a diehard Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots fan.
“Patriots, I couldn’t think of a better organization to learn from,” Torchetti said. “Discipline, off the charts. Off the charts. And their leader is the best leader in sports. They can say we cheat. They can say whatever they want. But the coach is off the charts. The coach puts the people in successful spots.”
Torchetti has never met Bill Belichick.
“But that would be something for me. I watch a lot of Bill Belichick moments, I read a lot of Bill Belichick books,” Torchetti said. “Tom Brady, he’s exactly what our team [the Wild] should identify itself with. Brady will go 32-for-38 and he talks about the six passes that he missed. Nothing else. That’s an athlete.”
Torchetti would love to bring that team culture to the Wild.
When Yeo was fired Feb. 13, Torchetti inherited problems. The Wild was coming off 13 losses in 14 games. Off the ice, there were issues in the locker room. Torchetti started by trying to get the leadership group of Koivu, Parise and Suter on better terms.
“I met with them,” Torchetti said. “They’ve got to be excited to play because they’re the leaders and they were putting a lot of it on them. And I was telling them, ‘Hey listen, this is more than just that. We’ve got to grab other guys in here, other guys that aren’t doing it the right way. You’ve got to hold them accountable, but you don’t have to yell at them. You can hold them accountable to play the game right, but you are the leader of this team. You just can’t walk by that guy and don’t make him better.’ ”
Since, Torchetti has seen Suter talk to the defensemen “all the time.” He asked one of them — he wouldn’t say who — to talk to struggling Jason Zucker. “Tell him what you’ve been through yourself in the past. Let’s try and get him through this,’” Torchetti told the leader.
He specifically wanted Parise and Koivu to get closer.
“Zach and Mikko, they met more. You know they had to get tighter — you have to get tighter … because we’re not winning,” Torchetti said. “If you’re not winning, something’s not working. So how do we cultivate it? Team meals, which they’ve done. I’ve seen more of that stuff. And talk more.”
Similarly on the ice, if a teammate messes up, tell him.
“Talk. ‘Hey, get the puck deep.’ That’s it,” Torchetti said. “There’s nothing wrong with holding someone accountable like that. You’re not doing anything out of context.”
Torchetti holds players accountable by either limiting their ice time or, in the case of players like Zucker and Thomas Vanek, scratching them.
“Everybody’s going to work for their minutes. And we have to play a certain brand of hockey,” Torchetti said. “So I had to make sure that we talk about leadership every day. Accountability every day. And our work ethic every day. And battles. Most teams, if you’re not winning, you’re not battling.
“Second thing is, are you cheating? Usually cheating’s part of the game. And I don’t understand why because it never works. And I thought we were on the wrong side of the puck a lot. Everyone has a different way of coaching. Mine’s more of, I’ll talk about this is how we play, and if I don’t like the way certain guys are playing, you’re going to sit out, and that’s just how it’s going to be.”
It goes both ways. He admits his own mistakes to his players. When Edmonton’s Connor McDavid scored the winning goal against the Wild last month after a faceoff play, Erik Haula told Torchetti, “I should have been out there.” Torchetti said, “You’re right. ”
Torchetti took over the Wild officially on Feb. 14 — his mom’s 80th birthday.
“That was a great present. I was shocked, he was shocked, everybody was,” said Barbara Torchetti. The Torchetti family all got Center Ice so they could watch every Wild game.
John Torchetti has been an interim coach in Florida, Los Angeles and now Minnesota.
In 2004, he turned down the full-time coaching job with the Panthers because the salary wasn’t up to par. The Panthers cleaned house days later anyway. In 2006, he never got a chance to become the full-time coach in Los Angeles because Dean Lombardi replaced Dave Taylor as GM and Marc Crawford was hired over him.
Torchetti’s hope now is the Wild can do something special this spring that will earn him the full-time job so he can finish what he has started.
“I’m pretty honest. I shoot from the hip,” Torchetti said. “For myself, the team comes first. And that’s how I coach. And that’s how I want to be known. And, yeah I’d love an opportunity to get it from Day 1.”