HF’s Interview with San Antonio Rampage Coach, John Torchetti

By Mark Fischel

On May 31, 2002, Florida Panthers General Manager Rick Dudley named John Torchetti Head Coach of the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in San Antonio, TX. Torchetti is responsible for developing Florida’s minor league prospects in the AHL. This is John’s second coaching stint in San Antonio, having formerly led the Central Hockey League’s San Antonio Iguanas in the 1990s. He also has worked in the International Hockey League in that city, serving as assistant general manager with the San Antonio Dragons.

John took time out after a Saturday practice, 2 days before the team heads to San Antonio to continue training camp, to talk to Hockey’s Future.

Hockey’s Future: With the Rampage being a new team and the majority of the players having never all played together as a whole, what kind of team identity are you looking to have, how long do you think it will take to get one, and how is this important?

John Torchetti: Well, it started the first day here just with the 14 guys that were sent down. Getting them to understand the fundamentals and the basics, team passing and positional hockey, and a system. We haven’t gotten the systems into place because we haven’t had a full roster.

This team is going to be a skating team and develop their skills for the NHL team. Identity overall overall is going to be number one, hard working. Number two is discipline, and we want to be a team that creates a lot of offense off the rush.

Hockey’s Future: How much of the identity is created by you, and how much of it is going to be created by your players?

John Torchetti: Well, you can shape the dough, but they make the bread. Putting players in key situations is big. We have players in their first year and some of them are coming off the first or second line in juniors or college, and now they are going to be on the 3rd and 4th line role, so that is a big adjustment getting them in the first 10 games to play that role, and with more ice-time, guys will get better.

Hockey’s Future: Do you like having this blank slate for a team, or would you prefer having a team that has already been established and has some history?

John Torchetti: From the ground-up is the best way. From the company here and in San Antonio, everything is structured off of the coaching staff. We get to be the first at everything so that we want to make sure that we don everything correctly. Getting the players out in the community with the fans, the hospitals, and school systems. We want them to be disciplined on and off the ice and also as an individual wanting them to grow every day. From step one, you couldn’t ask anything else as a coach.

Hockey’s Future: So off the ice, you are ready to draw the line as well?

John Torchetti: Most of the kids know they have their own rope and they hang yourself. Hopefully you are teaching them ideals every day as a person, and not just as a hockey player. Coaches, GM’s, CEO’s of companies have the same thing, the structure starts within at the top, and trickles down low, and then it is like a fever and they catch it and carry it on every day. You have go to be respectful to your teammates, and when everyone respects you, everyone is going to work for each other.

Hockey’s Future: While it is too early to set in place the system, how important is it to have the same system as the NHL squad?

John Torchetti: Usually you go on what the NHL team wants. For us, it is just preparing the guys to make sure when they come up, they get in the lineup, do the right things, fill the hole that has been opened due to injury or sickness, and they do the job and get to play every night. We are not expecting them to become impact players right away, but to gradually get into that role. But to also let them know that we are doing a job down low, so we are preparing that player for the next step, so when he comes up he doesn’t make the mistakes because he was taught it down low.

Hockey’s Future: Is that being communicated by the management and coaching staff in Florida?

John Torchetti: Right, Mike wants them in great shape number one. He wants them prepared to come up and fight for their jobs.

Hockey’s Future: Tell me about your relationship with Asst. Coach Scott Allen, how long have you two been working together?

John Torchetti: This is our first year together coaching. Scott and myself have played together, and won a championship together in Winston Salem. We stayed really close friends over the years, done some coaching clinics together, talked about hockey two or three times a week off an on. I think he is a great asset to the organization, brings values to the team and he has the same ideas that I have.

Just in the 14 days we have been here, I have learned some stuff from him and that is what is all about. You learn from your coaching staff and vice-versa. Sometimes a coach has a vision during the game and he doesn’t see certain things, and that is when the asst. has to step up and mention it. We have discussed it, we are friends but you want to push your friends to be better.

Hockey’s Future: Tell me about both of your roles? What is he going to focus on and what are you going to focus on?

John Torchetti: Scottie is going to run our defense during the game and be in charge of the penalty and power-play. But also oversee chances for and against after the game. It is going to change daily, but that’s the focus right not. Special teams usually determine the outcome of the game, and he is very good with that. He is going to put his time in the film room and bring his knowledge to the players, because we want to come out of the gate, and special teams and goaltending is going to be the focus of that.

Hockey’s Future: Even though the roster isn’t set right now, what are your immediate thoughts on the guys you have right now.

John Torchetti: Yeah, I am very happy with what we got right now. In just over the 8 days that we had the single group in practice, they have really come out and focused on moving the puck and wanting to be in position to receive the pass. All the little things, the little details add up and this group here has been working hard on and off the ice.

Every one of these guys is showing us every day that they want to improve and be the next call-up. That is what we want, we want you to be envious of the guys being called up. Not jealous, but envious of the guy being called up, and you want to the next one, and that is the team unity and accountability that we are trying to build.

Hockey’s Future: Are you pretty happy with the goaltending that you have right now?

John Torchetti: Yeah, Tyrone Garner is real good. I haven’t gotten to practice with Chris Mason yet, which is good because he gets to work with the big club and face those shots and those players, and that is only going to make him more better and more confident that they believe in him. He is probably the #3 right now in the organization.

Garner is coming here off a title in the ECHL, and he is very athletic. Reminds me of Kevin Weekes, I had Kevin on three different teams, and Kevin is a pretty good goalie. A goalie who is athletic is only going to improve, and every day he is improving and working hard.

Hockey’s Future: What are your thoughts on Billy Thompson, who is in camp but is still in contract negotiations, how long do you see before Billy can make the AHL level?

John Torchetti: Oh, he is close. He is a very good goalie, he controls his rebounds so well, and moves the puck well. I think he has grown a great deal since the July camps. He works hard and is a coach-able kid, and that is something kinda like himself who did well in the rookie tournament, and probably is why we won it.

He knows what he has to work on, and if the contract doesn’t work out for him, than he knows what he has to work on. If he doesn’t, he is back in juniors. But if he ends up in the American League, he knows what he has got to work at to be there, and to be a backup.Editor’s Note: Billy Thompson was not able to come to terms with the Panthers, and was returned Sept 28th to Prince George.

Hockey’s Future: Examining the camp rosters of the NHL and AHL and who is probably going to be available. It looks like you might have a smaller amount of veterans and not up to the maximum 6. Does that concern you?

John Torchetti: You never know. Right now, we have got 3 guys that are injured, and that is something that you don’t know what is going to happen day to day. Next week, the waiver draft is everything for a minor league team, so that is the day you go to church and you sit there and wait.

Hockey’s Future: With the waiver draft, are you able to be part of that with Rick Dudley and Mike Keenan.

John Torchetti: We don’t know who is going to get picked up with the waiver draft. Someone might not show any interest, and then they see a player go through waivers, and they go right after him and you lose a guy. Which is good for the player because he is getting another chance with another NHL club, and that is what you want.

I think we are going to be a pretty good mix of leadership, goal-scoring, some skill and some toughness coming down. A lot of it we are weighing out, and it depends on the injuries we have for opening night.

Hockey’s Future: Who is injured right now?

John Torchetti: Novoseltsev, Laus, and Huselius. That is 3 guys and that is 3 more guys who stay up in the NHL.

Hockey’s Future: Speaking of having young players and if the Rampage becomes a young team, tell me about the value of winning to a young team. There are a lot of young guys, do you need to get out of the gates early to get some winning going?

John Torchetti: The value of winning is confidence. You have got to instill confidence in the players that you believe in them, putting them on the ice in key situations and letting them grow. You get a lot of confidence from winning, and goaltending and special teams is really big like we talked about.

All next week in practices is probably going to be 15 minutes to power-play and penalty kill. It is definitely needed, as you seen in the past few games when we sat together. 9 power-plays a night, that is an odd-man situation for 18 minutes of a hockey game that they didn’t score. That is a whole period of hockey playing with the odd-man. So our club has to really focus on that and bear down in those situations.

But that goes again in being really disciplined, not using your stick, go the extra strides and get in the guy’s path instead of trying to hook him.

Hockey’s Future: On the flip side, what is the value of losing? What can be taken out of that for young players?

John Torchetti: Oh, there is always value in a loss. How does the club recover from a loss? Does it come right back, compete, and cut off the snake’s head at one loss, because that is how it is. You can go the spiral down really quick, where there is one, there is two. Then you start seeing them holding the stick and making sawdust.

We want to instill in the players that the loss is over, stay in the middle, not too high and not too low. If you have a young team, if you are very emotional after losses, they are going to be emotional, thinking about it all night and losing sleep and waking up the next day worrying about it. You just say “Hey guys, it’s back to work again, the train is back on track, hard work, shoot the puck, stay out of the penalty box and get a win”

One of the points you are trying to get them to understand is that they want to cut the losses off at one. That way there you know you have a competitive club when they are doing that. You are going to have a lot of success in the season when you cut if off at one loss.

Hockey’s Future: The team is in the Western Conference, which looks to be a pretty rough conference.

John Torchetti: Oh, it’s loaded! For our coaching staff, I think it is a great challenge for our young guys. A lot of these teams have 10 or 11 guys that have been playing together for a year, sometimes 3 years together. That makes it that much harder, but I think it helps make our guys understand about being in position and being ready every night.

As a coaching staff, we have to prepare. You have to prepare them mentally, it is a battle out there, a one-on-one battle almost every time, and we want to make sure that we are on the top end of that.

Hockey’s Future: Do you think that it is a benefit that you had several players in the Western Conference last year with the Utah Grizzlies?

John Torchetti: Sure, there are some players that after their first year is over, you are a veteran to me, and that is how I treat you. Rookies, after the first game is over, I treat you the same way too. There are some growing pains with some rookies, but the upside is everything for me, for Scottie, for the whole coaching staff. We want to win hockey games, but we want to develop these guys for the NHL, and there is going to be nights that we won’t play well, but we are going to come right back.

We have to look for these guys in their second year for leadership, where they might still be looking for leadership if we get some help from the NHL club with some veteran guys. If you get three veterans, you can work them in there, especially if they are in key positions, like if you have two veterans at defense, two veterans at center, you can work them. They will be the go-to guys when the score is 2 to 1, they tie it up and then get the game-winner. So now they are building confidence and maybe there were some young guys on the ice with them at the time and got the assists. That is how you build it from within.

Hockey’s Future: How long do you think till you name a captain? Do you do it right before the season starts, or do you do it now

John Torchetti: I will discuss that even with management too. I think that is a pivotal position, and it has to be someone who will bring it every day in the locker-room. The locker-room is probably the strong point of the team. You can go in and design, and say “you do this” and “you do that”, but what happens after you leave the locker-room is everything. Who is going power attack what you say?

You will have times when your team is down and out, and that is when your leader has to come up with a big goal, a big hit, take a big hit to make a play, or take a slash and not retaliate and be disciplined. Or the goalie, sometimes the goalie is a leader without saying it. Sometimes the goalie says “Come on guys, we are down 3 to 1, go out and take your chances, I will stop the 2 on 1’s, I will stop the breakaways”

We are going to have take chances some nights we are down 2 or 3 to 1 with 2 minutes left, and he will make the big stop. But collectively, you want the whole team to be leaders.

Hockey’s Future: About the captaincy, how important is it that the captain be an actual prospect of the Panthers, or can it be a guy that has been around the league a long time?

John Torchetti: We have been watching as a coaching staff to see how guys handle themselves. We put them in a lot of heated battles in the practices and drills, and every day we are watching to see who is a leader, who is pushing other guys, and that is what you want. You want them to push the team, I talked to a couple of guys about telling them their first year is over, you are a second year guy, and now it is the time to start stepping up. You are growing from the team you just came from, or if they are from the AHL, you know what it takes.

We will discuss this with the coaching staff, with the management, and find us a leader and make sure he is a guy who will be there in good times and in the bad times. Hockey’s Future: John, we thank you for your time and good luck this season.

John Torchetti: Anytime, I appreciate it as well.

Interview intro courtesy of the Florida Panthers.