If you felt an explosion late Saturday, it likely came from Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella.
The Canucks took a 3-2 shootout win over the Calgary Flames on home ice, though it started about as inhospitably as possible. The Canucks and Flames were both struggling going into tonight’s game, so the clichéd logic would suggest to start the fourth line to try and create some energy.
Of course, the fourth lines included known fighters in Brian McGrattan, Tom Sestito, Dale Weise, and Kevin Westgarth, among others. When combustible elements come together, things are bound to boil over quickly.
It took all of two seconds for that to happen, as a line brawl broke out right after the opening faceoff, with roughly 150 penalty minutes assessed and eight players (four per side) ejected, with both teams having to finish the game with four defencemen, resulting in Vancouver’s Dan Hamhuis and Calgary’s Dennis Wideman playing well over 35 minutes.
Needless to say, Mount Tort-Suvius erupted immediately. Feeling as though Flames head coach Bob Hartley intentionally sent his enforcers out to stir the pot immediately, Tortorella launched into a tirade directed at Hartley, who mostly ignored his coaching counterpart.
Once something like that happens, you would think the game would just play itself out as if nothing happened.
To quote John Pinette, this is not what happened.
The first period featured more bad blood, and to quote Hockey Night in Canada commentator Rick Ball, “it had everything except a goal.”
However, the first intermission is where the majority of sports writers tonight will take their leads from. While it’s not usually an exciting time for reporters, tonight was anything but usual, especially when something like what you’re about to see happens.
Yes, that’s John Tortorella, and yes, he’s in a rather heated discussion with the Calgary Flames with little to no backup, trying to get at their coaching staff as he was still irate about how the game started. It also prompted this outburst from Hockey Night in Canada analyst P.J. Stock, which is another story entirely.
In his post-game press conference, Tortorella offered his take on the situation, pointing a damning finger at Hartley for his lineup choice.
I can’t put our players at risk that way. With the lineup he had, I am not going to put those type of players at risk, and that’s what ensues. I’m not proud of it, I’ve apologized to every one of the players involved in it, and I don’t feel great about it at all.
To put this into some perspective, Tortorella submitted his starting lineup second, as is the custom for the home team. He saw Hartley’s starting lineup, and he felt compelled to match them while keeping players like Henrik Sedin, who left the game after the second period with an injury, off the ice and out of potential danger. Keeping the captain off the ice also eliminates having Daniel Sedin and the returning Alexandre Burrows involved, too.
Henrik’s injury also places greater importance on Ryan Kesler and his line, so based on his team’s health, Tortorella felt as though he didn’t have much choice. It’s not to say Tortorella is absolved of responsibility, but it certainly wasn’t an easy situation.
Tortorella further defended his lineup decisions, taking another shot at Hartley in the process. However, he regretted having Kellan Lain, who was making his NHL debut, out on the ice for the opening shenanigans.
That’s my biggest mistake was putting [Lain] in that lineup, and I’ll kick myself forever not having someone else there, but I’d do the same thing again if it came that way, because I cannot put anyone else out there not knowing what’s going to happen, and knowing the other guy across from me.
Tortorella couldn’t have been thrilled with Hartley putting Westgarth out at centre to face Lain, though Kevin Bieksa eventually took Lain’s place at centre ice. According to Elliotte Friedman, that faceoff was just the third Westgarth has taken this season, so it brings up a potential question of player management. Former Buffalo Sabres head coach Ron Rolston was fined for a similar tactic earlier this season, so it’s not a completely foreign concept.
In addition, Tortorella’s clearly got a long memory, and his beef with Hartley may stem back to Oct. 20, 2005, when then-Atlanta Thrashers forward Eric Boulton caught then-Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Paul Ranger with an elbow to the head, giving Ranger a hairline fracture on his jaw. At the time, Hartley was coaching the Thrashers, while Tortorella was coaching the Lightning, so there is some history between the two, especially as they reportedly met in Tortorella’s office post-game, which I would venture was not to set up a time to go to the bar and drink away their animosity.
Tortorella’s most interesting quote, however, came when he was asked if he thought he would receive supplementary discipline for his actions at the intermission.
It shouldn’t be in the game, that stuff, and I don’t want it in the game, but I have to protect my team, too.
There’s your key quote; “I have to protect my team, too.” In sport, the instinct to protect is certainly there, though as Jesse Spector of The Sporting News pointed out, there’s a precedent for that kind of mindset from Tortorella, especially in game-opening brawls. As Spector notes, Tortorella’s New York Rangers were involved in a game-opening line brawl with the New Jersey Devils on March 19, 2012.
(Note: In a bit of irony, Eric Boulton was one of the New Jersey combatants on the ice for that brawl, while Tim Sestito, older brother to Tom (the one Canuck who wasn’t immediately ejected in tonight’s brawl), was in the Devils organization, though he was playing for Albany at the time.)
The closest incident to the intermission antics in recent memory, again courtesy of Friedman, came from Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee, who was suspended for one month and fined $20,000 for punching then-Chicago Blackhawks head coach Lorne Molleken because he felt the Blackhawks were playing dirty.
With all of the above in mind, what do you think happens to John Tortorella? As always, feel free to vote in our poll, or comment on Facebook or Twitter!
(Of note, any discipline handed out to Tortorella will come from Colin Campbell, the NHL’s director of hockey operations.)