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John Tortorella Is What The Flyers Want To Be, For Better Or Worse

DALLAS, TEXAS - MARCH 04: John Tortorella, head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the third period at American Airlines Center on March 04, 2021 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

A showdown is brewing within the Philadelphia Flyers organ-eye-zation between the two most powerful entities on the masthead: new coach John Tortorella and face of the franchise Gritty.

In making this odd hire (Torts, not Grits), the Flyers’ multiheaded brain trust (it makes sense if you read this) decided that the Flyers needed an attitudinal change rather than a personnel change, and Torts has always been up for that. His “Safe Is Death” sign in the Columbus dressing room was always a head-turner until he took the sign down and decided that safe had been overrated.

It didn’t much matter either way. He did five and a half years in Ohio and got out of the first round once, largely because his teams weren’t that talented but also in part because he tended to grind the gears of his players with his old-world charm and toothy growl. In that way, “safe” and “death” were the same thing: synonyms for “uncomfortable.”

The Flyers, in their way, meet Tortorella halfway, in that they are not by nature a whimsical franchise. They still have an old guard, mostly made up of executives and franchise icons Bobby Clarke and Paul Holmgren, who have as their mandate making sure the old Flyer verities of toughness and problematic goaltending are never strayed from in any meaningful way. They had some say in this, as did general manager Chuck Fletcher and his more modern management team, and even Comcast Spectacor CEO Dave Scott, who can hear a dollar bill hit a patch of slush. Therein lies at least part of what ails the Flyers—too many folks with something to say. That they all congealed around Tortorella is an accomplishment of sorts, as his flinty profile and his 21 years running an NHL team meshed well with what the Flyers want to emulate. They always like to think that Dave Schultz, Moose Dupont, and Battleship Kelly are walking through that door even though they’re all in their 70s now.

But the Flyers also are skittish with coaches; the last one to serve four full years was Mike Keenan 34 years ago, and we know what a barrel of laughs he was. Since then, they have put 15 people behind the bench, an average of two seasons and 11 games per tenure. You know who’s been there longer than that?

Yep. Gritty. The team’s one attempt at comedy has been a bigger hit than the team itself, and when Tortorella and Gritty make their first public appearance together (and you know it’s coming), it will be a clash of styles. A stylish but stern glare to make it known that this is serious business, and a googly-eyed seven-foot-tall Swiffer to make it known that this is anything but. It’s must-see stuff, because you know at some point Tortorella will try to pull Gritty’s head off. Or he will actually pull Gritty’s head off, only to discover that inside Gritty’s head is a smaller Gritty head, like a hellish Russian doll imagined by Hieronymus Bosch.

We don’t know how well the Torts experiment will work; he will certainly influence more folks to come see him glower, and since the Flyers’ average home attendance last year was its lowest since 1973, this will serve as some comfort on the business side. But Tortorella’s notoriously limited sense of humor makes his all-important relationship with Gritty a potentially problematic one, since it is likely that Tortorella will likely want to clean out a fair amount of a roster that finished ahead of only Montreal, Arizona, and Seattle last season. This would make Gritty the longest tenured uniformed employee—if a gigantic feathery orange mop with arm and leg holes can be classified as a uniform.

And in the short term, Tortorella will have to make peace with Gritty as a potential organizational power base. Gritty won’t pick the players or the style of play, but his influence with the money-producing audience is not to be minimized. In Columbus, Torts had to co-exist with a cannon, which was much more his style in that it went boom and didn’t move out of its place.

In a lot of ways, Tortorella is a fit with what the Flyers believe to be their traditional ethos: if you don’t like how we do things, here’s some more of the same. And maybe he’ll convince Gritty to turn heel and become something the Flyers may really need—a truculent mascot, maybe even bordering on hostility. In most towns, that wouldn’t play with the kiddies, but in Philadelphia, it might go over gangbusters. It would certainly beat the concept of a kinder, gentler John Tortorella because, well, safe is a little bit like death, anyway.