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The softer side of John Tortorella: Inside the fiery trainer’s passion for helping animals in need

Driving every day on the road near his home in Columbus, Ohio, John Tortorella noticed that the horse next door was starting to look skinny. He stopped and learned that the owner of the horse was aging and struggling to care for him.

Tortorella had a farm and a pasture, so he offered to feed it. After a few months, they mutually decided that it was now Tortorella’s horse.

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“That’s how he found one of his [three] horses,” said Zack Bendler, co-founder of Bella Run Equinea non-profit organization that focuses on the responsible rescue, rehabilitation and repatriation of at-risk horses and dogs.

Tortorella, now with the Flyers and in his 21st season as NHL head coach, has a reputation as a feisty, tough coach who has no time for nonsense. But the John Tortorella under public persona has a soft heart and always goes out of his way to help someone – or something – in need. Even if it’s an hour before a game, he’ll find out about some house-hunting dogs, said Anthony Rothman, former co-host of Tortorella for their Columbus-based radio segment. Hockey and dogs.

Tortorella and his wife, Christine, don’t want the credit, however. They insist that they are only helping the real heroes.

“We support groups that actually do the work,” Christine said. “It’s the people running these relief groups who are the real story.”

But these people, like Bendler, insist that the Tortorellas are “angelic figures” in their lives. Even after Tortorella’s work displaced them from Columbus, their influence continued to be felt throughout the community, by both people and animals.

When John and Christine’s children were young, one of them asked, “Do insects have navels?”

Christine made a song out of it, and from there it became a whole series. As a children’s author, Christine strongly believes in the importance of education and literacy. His family shares this passion — his daughter works as a reading specialist — and John’s career as a coach has helped create the platform to support her.

At first, the Tortorella Family Foundation focused on providing free educational and reading materials in English and Spanish. The foundation worked in local school districts, but when the pandemic hit, it focused on online materials.

But the Tortorellas knew they wanted to do more, so they decided to pursue their other passion: animals. In collaboration with a Canadian humane education program for children as well as experts from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, they have developed lessons for children on how to treat animals.

At every stage of the NHL where the Tortorellas have lived for John’s work — Tampa Bay, New York, Vancouver, Columbus and now Philadelphia — they’ve found ways to connect with the community. But it was in New York that their work with animals really began.

“John got very involved in that time,” Christine said. “He’s always had his heart set on it, but when we came across the shelter doing such terrible work in New York, we needed all hands, and he was down and walking the dogs relentlessly.”

It turned out to be a turning point for the coach and his whole family, Christine said.

“His hard work, talent and dedication to what he does creates an opportunity for us for a community that we truly appreciate and need and hopefully contribute to,” Christine said. “We receive a lot by being here. And we want to give back and be part of the special community.

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Rothman has worked in Columbus sports media for nearly 30 years, about the last 10 of which as a daily host for the local ESPN radio affiliate. So when the Blue Jackets hired Tortorella as their interim coach in October 2015, Rothman was well acquainted with the hot-blooded coach he had seen on TV.

But after more research, Rothman came across a YouTube clip of a dog walk organized by Tortorella and the Rangers who raised money and awareness for the Humane Society of Westchester. The event intrigued Rothman, who has been a volunteer humanitarian worker investigating cases of neglect and cruelty for nearly 15 years.

“My first instinct was, ‘Oh, I wonder if this is something that Rangers just put together and John ended up doing,'” Rothman said. “And then after listening to the clip and hearing him speak, I realized that he’s not just a guy who loves animals. He really gets it. And he’s really an animal advocate.

Rothman sent the Blue Jackets a note asking if Tortorella would be interested in partnering with some animal projects. Within 24 hours, a representative informed Rothman that Tortorella was looking forward to speaking with him.

“My earliest memory of him is hitting the ground running,” Rothman said.

About a year and a half into Tortorella’s six-year tenure at Columbus, he and Rothman launched Hockey and dogs. Every Wednesday, the two would talk about hockey for 10 minutes, then move on to discussions about local dogs in need of homes or projects to benefit the animal welfare community.

The show leveraged Tortorella’s platform, securing sponsorship money that her family’s foundation could distribute to other causes. Not only have listeners adopted dogs through the show, but some have donated funds and other resources. On one occasion, Rothman and Tortorella discussed a project Christine was leading to build doghouses in the area. A listener donated building materials and helped inspire volunteers to take action.

“What it really did in Columbus, I think, is it made the community aware of how some people work very hard to provide for animals in distress,” Christine said.

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One such cause that has benefited from the Tortorellas Foundation is SAVE Ohio’s Pets, a non-profit organization that aims to reduce the number of homeless animals in central Ohio. The Tortorellas sponsored several of the organization’s monthly clinics, which provided checkups, vaccinations, and veterinary care to members of the community with limited resources. They later sponsored an event that provided on-site sterilization through a mobile animal hospital called Rascal unit.

“Once they get involved with an organization, whether it’s us or others, they go out of their way to make sure they’re the voice of the voiceless,” said Stacey Morris, co-director from SAVE Ohio Pets.

The Tortorellas also got involved with Bendler’s Bella Run Equine, working to help horses and dogs at risk. Bendler believes the Tortorellas have helped save thousands of animals through their contributions, from buying and saving horses from auctions to adopting horses themselves.

“We’re just very direct and try to help and be a voiceless animal advocate,” Bendler said. “And that’s just the only glasses we see through. And I think that’s another reason like, Torts is 100%. That’s why we’re such good friends, is because we see him in a similar light in that regard.

Their work with these organizations inspired others in the community to get involved, including Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzļikins, who donated a mask and pads used for the game for a raffle. The proceeds, which totaled more than $11,000, went to a foster rescue that helped pay for a dog’s surgery.

For Rothman, the Tortorellas’ dedication to animal welfare mimics the kind of trainer John is — he wants to do whatever he can to help, and he doesn’t like to accept no for an answer.

“I’ll never know what it’s like to play for him,” Rothman said. “But having worked with him on the show, I know what it’s like to be coached by him and inspired by him.”

When Tortorella and the Blue Jackets parted ways in 2021, Rothman was bombarded with questions about the future of Hockey and dogs. But the show goes on with current Blue Jackets coach and former Tortorella assistant Brad Larsen as Rothman’s co-host.

Hockey and dogs has tracking Tortorella in Philadelphia, too. Every Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. on 97.5 The Fanatic, Tortorella joins us to talk hockey and animal welfare. It sheds light on local animals in need of homes in partnership with the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society and Pennsylvania SPCA.

“His impact created a legacy here in a way, and that the Hockey and dogs The brand is now a legacy for him because he was such a big part of it and it has continued,” Rothman said.

The Tortorellas are always looking to get more involved in Philadelphia, whether through animal welfare, education or existing Flyers causes, Christine said. She added that doing community work with players is a good way for them to bond.

Although they are immersing themselves in a new community, they have not cut ties with those they left behind, as evidenced by the way their impact continues to be felt in Columbus. Before Tortorella took the Flyers’ job, he told Bendler that he was going to help fund the construction of a kennel at Bella Run. The day the news of his hiring broke, Bendler said Tortorella called him and said, “Hey, man, let’s build this kennel.”

While Tortorella is focused on helping his underdog Flyers team find ways to win, he and Christine also intend to achieve a similar goal off the ice, working to find solutions for the animals that they support in Columbus, Philadelphia and beyond.

“The way Torts tells me and always tells me is, ‘Zack, we’re gonna find a way,'” Bendler said. “I think it’s just his mentality. He just doesn’t give up and he just doesn’t take excuses.

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