By Stu Hackel
Johnny, Johnny, Johnny…Jeez, Johnny…can't you ever just control yourself? Does every slight, real or imagined, require an attack? Does every attack require a war? He pulls a knife, you pull a gun? He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue?
The events leading to Canucks coach John Tortorella's 15-day ban is the NHL's latest episode in a season of "Men Behaving Badly" and has become the talk of the hockey world since the weekend. But it's even gone beyond that. Esteemed baseball commentator Peter Gammons stumbled upon the highlights from the ugly Canucks-Flames brawl on Sunday and tweeted, "Calgary and Vancouver last night reiterated why the NHL is a minor sport."
Was that really a fair assessment in the wake of another one of Torts' tantrums and the ugliness surrounding it?
From one perspective, last Saturday night was not just about Tortorella's anger management issues, but about two teams unwilling to be pushed around. The Flames are led by a president, Brian Burke, who has stated a preference for "proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence" -- and he's got a coach in Bob Hartley who gladly complies.
The Canucks, still scarred after being manhandled by the Bruins in losing the 2011 Stanley Cup final, are now coached by a 55-year-old fighting rooster from Boston who habitually refuses to let anyone get the better of him. John Tortorella's problem is that he will sometimes go too far. He has famously sparred with and cursed members of the media, insulted players and other coaches with live cameras running. He was suspended one game for squirting water at a heckling fan during a game and alleged the NHL tried to rig the outcome of the 2012 Winter Classic. Tortorella loses sight of the boundaries, and doesn't know where and when to stop. It doesn't help when he's provoked. And that's exactly what happened Saturday.
In case you missed it, here's how it all went down.
As per the rules, Hartley -- who has butted heads with a few opposing coaches (including Tortorella, as far back as 1995 in minor pro hockey) -- declared his starting players prior to the game and, rather than select his best skaters, he chose to put on his fighters, including Brian McGrattan and Kevin Westgarth, who together have a grand total of 10 goals, 20 assists and 828 penalty minutes in 519 NHL games.
Hartley's intention was obvious. Despite insisting that his sluggos had been "playing well for us" and, "We had absolutely zero intentions there," he knew this was the kind of opening gambit that could drive Tortorella nuts, precisely because Torts had gone nuts about it before. So why not try it? Hartley, whose Flames are fairly devoid of talent, probably figured that since the Canucks were on a slide (1-5-3 in their previous nine games), Torts was already on edge and it wouldn't take much to destabilize his old buddy, maybe give his own club a chance to steal a point or two. Turns out he was right. The Flames would get a point in the standings for a regulation tie on this night.
When Torts saw the game sheet with the Flames starting lineup, he could have responded by putting his best players on against them. That's what the better coaches often do. Instead, Tortorella swallowed the bait, saying he believes he puts his best players at risk against the other side's tough guys. "Torts came in and told us that they're starting those idiots over there so we're going to match that and go with it," said Canucks enforcer Tom Sestito, one of the Canuck presumed idiots who Torts sent out to start along with Dale Weise (their totals: 19 goals, 14 assists, 557 penalty minutes in 261 games) and 6-foot-6 Kellan Lain, playing his first game (welcome to the NHL, kid).
So the teams come to center ice to start the game and this is how it looked, as they say, coast to coast over Hockey Night in Canada:
There's really nothing currently in the NHL rules to prohibit like this at the game's outset before it takes place. A few years ago, the league's general managers attempted to outlaw "staged fights" which occur right from a faceoff at any time during a game, but the NHLPA blocked it.
Perhaps there is a workaround, although it's questionable whether the NHL would actually implement it. While it's fundamental that coaches are allowed to put the players they want on the ice, former NHL referee Kerry Fraser proposed in an article on TSN.ca some "proactive intervention" by the officials if they see a gong-show about to commence: The starting lineups could be escorted back to their benches by the linesmen and the referee would give the coaches a chance to change their players. If they declined and a brawl broke out, Fraser said he'd eject the player who starts it and the coach as well.
On Saturday, the officials did what they could under the existing procedures. After everyone was punched out, all ten skaters got five minute fighting majors and eight of them were tossed from the contest. The game resumed, there were a few more hostile acts, although nothing on that scale.
The first period finally ended, but the lunacy did not. At the buzzer -- or maybe even before -- Tortorella left the bench and rapidly made his way to the Flames dressing room (a fairly long distance at Rogers Arena) with the apparent intention of confronting Hartley, who had ignored Torts' rant at him from the bench during the brawl. The Flames players had not yet even finished filing off their bench into their dressing room when the Canucks coach magically appeared in their hallway.
This could have gotten very ugly very quickly. Big McGrattan had to hold Torts back and then restrain Flames goalie coach Clint Malarchuk, who came flying out into the hallway to get at Tortorella. Some 25 years ago, Malarchuk was Buffalo's goalie when Tortorella served as the Sabres' assistant coach. But "I wasn't going to kiss him," Malarchuk told The Calgary Sun on Sunday.
"The NHL will tolerate a lot, game-starting line brawls, for example," commentator Bob McKenzie said on TSN's SportsCentre. But it was never going to tolerate a coach trying to invade another team's room. That was a bridge too far. Regardless of what Hartley did to antagonize Tortorella, the Canucks coach had to pay for his latest display of excess -- and he did.
Hartley didn't escape either. The league wacked him $25,000, explaining it held him responsible for Westgarth instigating a fight with Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa, an unwilling combatant. (That may be the official line, but everyone knows that Hartley was fined for his provocative role in the mess.)
The Canucks president and GM Mike Gillis issued a statement supporting Tortorella and the players all say they're glad he's fighting for them. On the Flames side, Burke said, "I am perplexed by this fine. I stand behind Bob Hartley completely in this regard, and remain confident that he acted properly in every aspect of this game." These sentiments are at least partly for team unity and fan consumption. Only a fool would take pride in this sorry spectacle.
And that brings us back to Mr. Gammons' remarks. I have great regard for Peter Gammons and respect for him as a baseball writer. When it comes to his views on hockey, however, Gammons is both right and wrong. He's right that hockey's popularity in the U.S. doesn't compare with that of baseball, basketball and football. He's wrong to believe that fighting and some of the NHL's occasional madness explains why. Not surprisingly, Gammons' tweet struck many in hockey as insulting and inflammatory. Canadian Press reported that the reaction included a response by Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson, the Minnesota-born former first overall draft choice, who retweeted the aerial photo of a packed Michigan Stadium in snowy 19 degree weather during the Red Wings-Maple Leafs Winter Classic captioned: "No one cares about hockey."
And here's the thing: At their core, there's little difference between every other sport and this supposed "minor sport." They all test your strength, your character, your endurance, each in its own peculiar way and each according to its own traditions, codes and precepts. And they all have their moments of open violence. It's the pitcher who will come inside, if not right at your head; it's the defensive tackle at the line of scrimmage -- the most brutal place in sports -- who will stop at nothing to eliminate you on his path to the ball; it's the power forward who will thrust his elbows, hips and shoulders at you under the backboard. We may like to romanticize our athletes and the games they play, but where they live, these are sports' hard moments and they play a huge part in sports' appeal.
It's far easier after a foolish incident for some to simply dismiss hockey with a wave of their hand and expressions of disdain rather than decipher why a team's power play works or doesn't, or how a team can break an opponent's neutral zone trap or flood forecheck, or even comprehend the role fighting has in the pro game. Even in this latest incident, there was so much going on behind the scenes the casual observer who just tuned in for those first few minutes couldn't have possibly known about or comprehended. It always has been that way, though.
Like Tortorella, hockey itself can lose control. But there is still order behind the chaos.
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Former NHL director of broadcasting, publishing and video, Stu Hackel has written about hockey for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, SI.com, The Hockey News, The (Montreal) Gazette, Goal magazine and The Village Voice. He wrote his first hockey stories nearly 50 years ago when he published a newsletter for the Gump Worsley Fan Club. You can follow him on Twitter @stuhackel.