When John Tortora earned his law degree from Seton Hall University in 1994, his goal was to run an NHL team.
“I never had the ability to play (hockey at a high level), but I loved the business and legal aspects of the sport,” said Tortora, a Morgan Hill resident. “During the late 1980s and 1990s when I was in college, the sports world was becoming more big business and the issues facing them more interesting. I had a strong passion for hockey ever since I was a teenager, so I thought if I could marry the passion of hockey with my legal acumen, I’d do OK.”
He’s done more than OK, thank you. Tortora, 49, is the president of Sharks Sports & Entertainment (SSE), which oversees the San Jose Sharks, the San Jose Barracuda and operates SAP Center and Solar4America Ice in San Jose. Whether he’s at work or at home, Tortora is living a dream.
Tortora and his family moved to Morgan Hill from a picturesque Willow Glen neighborhood three years ago for one big reason: space. Tortora and his wife, Debbie, bought a home off East Dunne Avenue, minutes away from downtown but far enough where he can get lost in nature.
“We like the rural nature of Morgan Hill,” he said. “My wife grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York, and from the corner where we live now there are farms with sheep and horses. We have Anderson Dam, farms and a little rodeo nearby, and we’re minutes from downtown. It’s very appealing.”
Tortora had a glean in his eyes when talking about how he met Debbie, who sat in front of him in law school. Debbie oversees hospice and healthcare for Kaiser Permanente’s Redwood City to San Jose locations, John said.
“I have one degree; she has two. She has hair; I don’t. She’s much better looking,” John said laughing, poking a little fun at himself while praising his wife.
Tortora has overseen a number of impactful projects in his role as the SSE president; however, there are a couple of accomplishments under his watch that he’s particularly proud of. One of them is bringing the NHL All-Star Game back to San Jose, which takes place in January 2019. The franchise hosted the event one other time, in 1997.
Tortora, who has been with SSE for seven years, heard the drumbeat from fans to bring the All-Star Game back to San Jose.
“Practically every week I’ve been in San Jose, a fan will come up to me and say they can’t wait to get the All Star Game here again,” Tortora said. “The league takes a bid on a three-year process (the Sharks bid on the 2019, 2020 and 2021 games), and we were hoping to get one of those bids, We weren’t expecting 2019, but the opportunity popped up so we jumped at it.”
Tortora and his SSE cohorts worked with the league for over six months to negotiate terms of the All Star Game returning to San Jose.
“The biggest selling point is our fans and the passion for hockey in the Bay Area is very high,” Tortora said. “The fact they were able to fill Levi’s Stadium with 70,000 fans is a testament to that.”
Tortora was referring to the Sharks participating and hosting the 2015 Stadium Series outdoor game at Levi’s Stadium against the Los Angeles Kings. In addition to the return of the All Star Game and the Stadium Series outdoor game occurring under his watch, Tortora is particularly proud of having a part in the franchise’s American Hockey League team relocating to San Jose, meaning the Sharks are one of just three NHL teams that have one of their minor league clubs playing in the same city.
That gives the organization and fan base the chance to see the future in the present, as a couple of the San Jose Barracuda players are now wearing a Sharks uniform.
“It’s also an opportunity to bring the game to the fans from a different price point,” Tortora said.
The one goal that the Sharks franchise haven’t accomplished is winning the Stanley Cup. In 2016, of course, the Sharks reached the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to Pittsburgh in six games.
“We’re in this business to win the Stanley Cup—that is always the corporate goal,” Tortora said.
As the president of SSE, Tortora oversees the company’s finance and venue operations. Besides pro hockey games, Tortora expressed pride in having a variety of unique events at the SAP Center monthly.
“More than anything, we want to bring fantastic entertainment and want to be a place where the community can gather for all different type events, not just hockey games,” he said.
Tortora pointed to several cultural and diverse events that take place at SAP Center, including high school and college graduations and events that spotlight the rich diversity in the Bay Area.
“SAP is a place for everybody and we want to continue to bring events to the arena that our diverse community can enjoy,” he said.
Tortora emphasized his love for Morgan Hill, noting the city is developing at the right pace and balances its rural roots and necessary development of housing and businesses at the same time.
“It’s one of the few places in the world where you can drive on a busy road—in this case Main Street, Monterey Highway or East Dunne—and pass someone who is galloping on a horse. I think that’s very attractive,” he said.
Before coming to SSE, Tortora spent 14 years working at the NHL’s New York City headquarters.
“When I got there, it was to use it as a stepping stone,” he said. “The goal was to run an NHL team and to land in a place with great ownership, great colleagues and great fans. I didn’t think it would take 14 years to do that, but it was definitely worth the wait.”