John Tortorella has the wins, but is he a better overall coach than 'Badger' Bob Johnson?

ByJoe McDonald ESPN logo
Friday, December 23, 2016

Sure, Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella became the first American-born coach to reach 500 wins. But is he the best U.S. coach in the history of the game?

Tortorella, Herb Brooks, Ron Wilson, Jack Riley, Mike Sullivan and Peter Laviolette are all on my short list. However, Bob Johnson, the man who coined the legendary phrase "It's a great day for hockey," rivals Tortorella as the GOAT in the U.S.

"Probably between Bob Johnson and Herb Brooks," Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine said. "If counting NHL: Bob Johnson. To date, I would say that's a fair comment."

Brooks, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, who died in a car accident in 2003, is best known for the Miracle on Ice win over the Soviet team and the gold medal for Team USA at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. He coached seven seasons in the NHL with the New York Rangers, Minnesota North Stars, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguinsbut amassed only 219 wins.

Wilson, 61, a Canadian-born American (he moved to the U.S. when he was 12), has a storied coaching tenure in the NHL and internationally for Team USA. After 18 seasons in the NHL, he finished with 648 wins. Riley, who died in February at age 94, coached at West Point but is best known as the coach of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team that won gold at Squaw Valley.

Sullivan, 48, a native of Marshfield, Massachusetts, is the defending Stanley Cup-winning coach for the Penguins. Laviolette, 52, of Franklin, Massachusetts, won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and will soon reach the 500-win plateau (he's at 492) with the Nashville Predators.

But "Badger" Bob Johnson is in a class all his own.

"In my opinion, [it's] Bob Johnson," Toronto Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello said. "He won at all levels -- college and pro."

Johnson's overall body of work is unparalleled. A native of Minneapolis, Johnson was a tireless promoter of American hockey. He won four city conference championships in six seasons at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School. He won three national championships at the University of Wisconsin. He led the 1976 U.S. Olympic team to a fourth-place finish and coached the U.S. national team in 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1981. He coached Team USA at the Canada Cup in 1981, 1984 and 1987.

Johnson coached the Calgary Flames for five seasons, from 1982 to '87, compiling a record of 193-155-52, losing in the Stanley Cup finals in 1986 to Patrick Roy's storybook Montreal Canadiens. After that, he was the executive director of USA Hockey for three years before joining the Penguins, whom he led to a Stanley Cup championship in 1990-91 in his first and only season with the team. He died in November 1991 of brain cancer at 60.

"Bob was an amazing person, first of all, a great coach, always positive," Penguins icon Mario Lemieuxsaid in the team's 50th anniversary documentary, "Pittsburgh is Home."

Mark Recchi, a three-time Cup winner with the Penguins, Hurricanes and Boston Bruins, best described Johnson's legacy in the documentary: "He was the best coach I ever had. A combination of teaching, communication, [being] positive; you didn't think it was real at first. How can somebody be that positive? By the time January, February comes along, he's still the same person."

But the career accomplishments of Tortorella, 58, are right up there with Johnson's.

"Through the process of elimination, it has to be Torts," said one former NHL player who did not play for either Tortorella or Johnson. "[Johnson] is not high enough for me. His one Cup with Pittsburgh -- that team was loaded."

Tortorella, a Boston native, might not be the favorite choice because of his personality and outspoken manner, but there's no denying that he's a winner, highlighted by having his name etched on the Stanley Cup with the 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning.

Tortorella also won league titles in the minors in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League and the American Hockey League, earning a promotion to the NHL as an assistant. After seven seasons (2000-01 to 2007-08) coaching the Lightning, he spent five seasons (2008-09 to 2012-13) behind the bench for the Rangers, where the highest he got was the Eastern Conference finals. Then it was off to Vancouver for a disastrous season (2013-14), as the Canucks finished 36-35-11 and out of the playoffs amid turmoil that included him trying to pick a fight with Flames coach Bob Hartley. After he was fired, Tortorella stepped away from the game to regroup. It was the best decision he's made for his career.

"I'm sure it's helped him," Sullivan said. "Anytime you go through those experiences, especially on the firing side, those are hard experiences for coaches, and it's a time for self-reflection and self-assessment and how you can improve and get better as a coach.

"What I really admire about Torts, he's always been a very honest guy when it comes to his own self-assessment. I think he's a misunderstood guy by a lot of the media and some fans, but what I've grown to admire about him over the years, he's the first one to take responsibility, accountability, for the experiences that he goes through."

Tortorella took over the Blue Jackets after Todd Richards was fired on Oct. 21, 2015. This season, the hot Blue Jackets sit third in the Metropolitan Division with a 21-5-4 record. He recorded his 500th career win, a 4-3 overtime victory against the Vancouver Canucks, on Sunday.

"I'm thrilled for him. I know how hard he works at being a good coach and trying to stay at the forefront of the profession with his work ethic and how he breaks the game down, and embracing some of the evolutions of the game," Sullivan said. "It's an indication of how good of a coach he is, and any time a coach reaches that milestone -- 500 wins -- is a lot of wins. It's suggestive of his diligence and resilience to be in the business for as long as he has and his ability to evolve with the game."

He's evolved as a coach and stayed on the cutting edge, whether that's tactically or how he manages the personalities of today's athletes.

Internationally, Tortorella was an assistant coach for Team USA in 2008-09 and was head coach for the 2008 IIHF World Championship, where the Americans finished sixth. He also coached Team USA during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, where the team went 0-3.

New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano, a native of Cranston, Rhode Island, should also be considered among the top American-born coaches. He ranks second in franchise history with 211 wins for the Islanders. He also served as an assistant coach under Tortorella during the World Cup.

"He's paid his dues, and he's obviously a hardworking guy," Capuano said of Tortorella. "He's very passionate, and when you're around a passionate guy, a guy who wants to win, and everybody says he's a hard guy to get along with, or he's hard on his players, but he's no different than any other coach. He wants what's best for his players. It's not information overload, it's about that compete level and that work ethic every coach is looking for, and he's got it out of his players."

So, who is the best American coach of all time? Tortorella? Or Johnson?

Their personalities are completely different. The overall body of work is different, too. The one thing they have in common is their love for the game of hockey. It's definitely a difficult choice.

But Johnson outmuscles Torts because of the overall body of work at every level.