CALGARY, ALBERTA – When he says, “hahd,” he means “hard.” When he says “smaht,” he means “smart.” He might talk a million miles an hour, but he means every word whizzing out of his mouth.
Wild fans, that’s your first lesson in understanding Boston native John Torchetti, the former minor league standout who will use 23 years of coaching experience to try to right the team’s ship.
“He’s got an untouchable work ethic and is very technically savvy,” said Torchetti’s mentor of 32 years, Montreal Canadiens executive Rick Dudley. “He absorbs so much. He’s the only guy I’ve ever known where I can tell him a system, and he’ll get it without us even going to the board.”
During his victorious Wild interim coaching debut in Vancouver on Monday night, Torchetti ran up and down the bench as if it was gym class. He has a certain way he sees the game, and he wants his players to see it that way, too. But he also keeps things light with funny quips that had his players howling.
At one point, he snapped, “Stop yelling at the linesmen — you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” When confused players turned around, Charlie Coyle piped up, “Get used to it, boys.”
“He’s always going over stuff that happened, and making plays better,” said Coyle, who skated in 47 games for Torchetti in Houston of the American Hockey League in 2012-13. “He still keeps the mood light, but he lets you know when he wants to see something differently in a positive way.
“He expects a lot of you, which is a good thing.”
It helps that Torchetti speaks Coyle’s language, so to speak. Captain Mikko Koivu told Coyle, another Massachusetts native, that “he might need a translator.”
Torchetti feels his style works: “Boston people hold you accountable. If you get into an argument, it’s over the next day.”
Scoring in droves
Torchetti, 51, pounds Diet Cokes, more so now because he gave up beer for Lent. Oozing with energy, he hit the smelling salt hard during games, something that stunned assistant coach Darryl Sydor.
“I don’t think he needs it,” Sydor teased.
Torchetti, barking constantly, said he loves every moment.
“I might not look it on the bench, but I’m having fun,” he said.
A native of Jamaica Plain, Mass., Torchetti said he was a “good” high school player. How good? How about 49 goals in 12 games? He shattered state high school records, then went to prep school. As all his pals were set to play junior and college hockey, Torchetti planned to attend West Point; he wanted to be a pilot.
His dad, John Sr., said, “Listen, you have to make your own decision. I like the route you’re going, but it’s your life.”
So in 1984, Torchetti went to play in Plattsburgh, the only Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team in the U.S. The team folded eight games in. Dudley, the former WHA and NHL forward, drafted Torchetti to play for an Atlantic Coast Hockey League team in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Torchetti, then 19, scored 95 goals and 179 points in back-to-back championship seasons. He’d be in the front of the bus as Dudley drove and pick the brain of the future Sabres coach and GM of the Senators, Lightning, Panthers and Thrashers.
“I’d sit on the cooler until it’d be 3 o’clock and Duds would say, ‘We’ve got a game tomorrow. Get to bed.’ But I knew I wanted to be a coach right then,” Torchetti said.
He played five more years until becoming an ECHL assistant coach in Greensboro. The gig didn’t pay, so Torchetti drove a taxi on the side.
“It’s the only thing I could do to intertwine with coaching,” Torchetti said. “I’d go to the rink in the morning, get in the cab, go make money, go to the rink for the game, get done at 11, get in the cab ’til 2 a.m., make some money and grind it out again the next day.
“It was fun. It was good. Hey, you do what you do to survive, and I wanted to coach. They didn’t pay, so that’s what you do.”
He took over a struggling San Antonio Iguanas team in 1994 and led them to consecutive trips to the Central Hockey League finals and won Coach of the Year. He took over a struggling Fort Wayne Komets team and was named International Hockey League coach of the year there. Along the way, he’d attend coaching seminars or Roger Neilson’s clinics.
“He was always a sponge. He always wanted to learn,” said Dudley, who persuaded him to become GM of the Detroit Vipers, and that triggered an NHL career as he followed Dudley to Tampa Bay, Florida, Chicago (won a Stanley Cup in 2010) and Atlanta.
He twice became interim coach in Florida and Los Angeles. Dudley actually offered Torchetti the Panthers’ full-time job in 2004. But as Torchetti mulled over the money, Dudley was shockingly fired a few days later and Mike Keenan, whom Dudley fired as coach earlier that season, and Jacques Martin were hired as a GM-coach tandem.
“People forget, Torch took over situations in L.A. and Florida that weren’t very good and he did pretty good with what he had at that time,” said Hall of Famer Denis Savard, the former Blackhawks coach who hired Torchetti in 2007 to be his assistant. “This time around, there’s a strong foundation in Minnesota that’s already been installed. I’ve seen them play many times. This is a good team.
“He’ll have them play a little more aggressive, a little faster.”
The Wild’s six-week slump ultimately cost Mike Yeo his job. Torchetti, the Wild’s Iowa coach, saw too much “cheating” from the team.
“If cheating worked, I’d have it as a play,” Torchetti said. “Hey, I want offense. I’ll get you offense. Let’s just do it the right way. We want everyone to have a checking mentality. Chicago’s the best checking team in the league. That’s what people don’t understand. They can win a game 1-0, 2-1 or 4-1, 6-1 because they check the puck.
“I want to carry the puck in the zone. If they bottle up the blue line, you chip it. But the game’s all about working without the puck. How hard you work without the puck will determine how much time you will have with the puck.”
So, that’s one reason Torchetti was in every player’s ear Monday. He wants players to learn his buzzwords but also admits he was “selling myself to them so they understand I know the game.”
“I’m trying to give you shortcuts to get there quicker, better, faster and speed up your process of the pace of the game,” Torchetti said.
His first game, a 5-2 victory over the Canucks, was a roaring success.
“It kept us into the game,” Zach Parise said. “You’re held accountable to make the right play all the time.”
“That’s what we need now,” Koivu added.
Dudley said Torchetti will “challenge them, but at the end of the conversation, they understand he wants them to be the best they can be.”
Savard added, “The players will love him. He’s going to be honest, but he’s going to be fair with them. Today’s day and age, that’s what players expect from a coach. Leadership and accountability, but at the same time, be fair.”
Back in the league
Torchetti spent much of his Tuesday watching Wild video and scouting the Flames. He spoke to people such as Dale Hunter for 35 minutes searching for tips and e-mailed Wild video to some of his former players to get outside opinions.
Savard attributes much of the success at the start of the careers of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to the guidance Torchetti showed them.
“He picks up things with players that they’ve never thought of and takes a lot of pride in his presentation to his players,” Savard said. “That’ll be very, very good. His teams are going to come out strong. We used to talk so many times that it’s a reflection of your coaches if your team comes out flat.”
Torchetti hasn’t been in the NHL since 2011. He had chances to return to the league as an assistant, “but I love teaching the game from start to finish with the players. My goal [at Iowa] was for Minnesota to win with Yeozie and then I do a good job and someone else gets me from another organization.
“I didn’t want it this way with someone else in the family leaving, but it’s always been my dream to get back.”