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Murph’s Musings: John Tortorella Lost His Cool But Showed His Loyalty

John Tortorella should and will be punished but his loyalty to his players cannot be questioned.

John Tortorella Calgary Flames
John Tortorella Calgary Flames

Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella and forward Ryan Kesler (17) talk to the Calgary Flames defenseman Shane O’Brien (55) and forward Lance Bouma (17) and Calgary Flames forward Jiri Hudler (24) during the first period at Rogers Arena. Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

As I write this, Canucks head coach John Tortorella is awaiting the verdict from the NHL for his actions following the first period of the Canucks’ 3-2 shootout win Saturday that began with a line brawl on the opening faceoff and saw Tortorella lose his cool and try to get into the Flames dressing room after the first period to apparently seek out Flames head coach Bob Hartley for a verbal and/or physical confrontation. Unlike many of my colleagues and many fans, I’m not going to pour on the hate towards Tortorella and bash him for his actions. Was he wrong? Yes! Do I condone such actions? No! But do I understand where he was coming from and why other than his temper, he did what he did? I think and hope so.

When I awoke Sunday and learned of these events, I immediately recalled a similar situation I found myself in almost 20 years ago. Ironically, this wasn’t hockey related but 20 years later and after covering the NHL for the last 13 years, the way I feel now about this similar incident are quite different. College basketball fans and specifically UMass and Temple fans will remember this moment quite well. As a UMass alum, I must also point out that I’m happy to see the Minutemen basketball program inch back to the prominence they enjoyed back on February 13, 1994 a day that goes down in infamy for both programs much like what happened at Rogers Arena Saturday night will for the Flames and Canucks.

In 1994, UMass and Temple were much more bitter rivals than the Flames and Canucks. Think Bruins-Canadiens, Canadiens-Leafs, Oilers-Flames or even Rangers-Islanders. Both programs were perennial invites to the NCAA Basketball tournament and switched places atop the Atlantic 10 standings every season. To say they didn’t like each other would be an understatement and that bitterness existed between UMass head coach John Calipari and Temple head coach John Chaney.

Following a hard fought loss to his rival, Chaney, like Tortorella, let his emotions get the best of him and stormed by yours truly, who was sitting outside the dressing room working for the event staff at the Mullins Center where UMass basketball and hockey play on the Amherst campus. As we got up to see what was going on, Chaney was already in the pressroom trying to attack Calipari. While being held back by my larger colleagues, Chaney shouted at Calipari, “When I see you, I’m gonna kick your ass! I’ll kill you!” and then he admitted telling his players to “knock your fucking kids in the mouth.”

Chaney received a one-game suspension and at the time many thought that was much too lenient and that he should’ve gotten at least 5-7 games. Being in the moment, I of course boiled with school pride and wanted him banned for the season. I was stunned and disgusted that a college coach would lose control and set such a bad example for the college athletes he coached. But, of course, as I got older and then got into sports journalism, I realized that college athletes sadly aren’t just student athletes and that, as far as college basketball and football go, the only difference between pro and college athletes really is that pros are paid. But that’s a topic for it’s own column.

The other lesson I’ve learned as a hockey scribe though — and try to apply in my writing or coverage of the NHL is the dynamic of a professional hockey dressing room and their relationship with their coach. Being an NHL coach isn’t what it once was. The players on average make much more money than their coaches and it’s a balancing act every day for an NHL head coach to maintain the respect and attention of his team. When pro hockey players get reprimanded the way maybe a junior or college player does, there’s a very good chance that the coach will lose that player’s and even his teammates’ respect. No head coach knows this better than Tortorella as witnessed by him being relieved of his duties as Rangers head coach following last season when multiple players reportedly told management they didn’t want to play for him because of the way he coached and, according to them, disrespected them as professionals.

Well that may be true and some of the criticism of Tortorella as a coach may hold merit as well, his actions Saturday night proved that while he his hard on his players, he will go through a wall for them. Are there better and safer ways to show it? Sure there are. But much like Chaney almost 20 years ago, he won’t let the actions of other coaches go unpunished. Tortorella watched a coach that has a reputation amongst other coaches and players of pulling similar actions like the one he pulled Saturday. He knew what he was doing and it baffles me he hasn’t been contacted by the league about player selection, as former Sabres head coach Ron Rolston was when he was fined in the preseason for his actions and choices against the Maple Leafs.

Chaney and Tortorella snapped and, as Chaney was, Tortorella should and will be punished. There is no place for verbal threats or attempting to assault fellow coaches in any sport. But while I didn’t see it 20 years ago, I see it now, Chaney and Tortorella are good coaches in the sense that they will do anything for their team and defend them when they’ve been wronged. So before you decide to pile it on and bash Tortorella right now or in the future, don’t ever question – like those cowardly Rangers players that went behind his back did – his loyalty to his players and team.

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