Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 5, 2012

Tortorella Darkens The NHL’s Moment In The Sun

What is it with coaches in New York? Perhaps there is something in the Gotham water supply that causes those charged with managing the city’s professional teams to feel compelled to make themselves the center of attention. Just as fans far and wide could rejoice at the happy news that the late season collapse of the New York Jets had effectively silenced the blowhard Rex Ryan for at least a few months, along comes John Tortorella to take Ryan’s place as Grand Marshall of the idiot parade.

Tortorella’s New York Rangers made the short trip down the Jersey Turnpike on Monday to face off against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Winter Classic. Now in its fifth year, the NHL’s annual outdoor game has been a boon to the league, drawing capacity crowds to venues such as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park as well as huge (at least for hockey) television audiences. This year’s contest was staged at Citizens Bank Park, the regular home of the Philadelphia Phillies. While the television audience was down from 2010, the year-to-year comparison is not entirely fair. Last year’s Winter Classic between the Capitals and Penguins was played in prime time on New Year’s Day, rather than in the afternoon on the day after New Year’s; a move made necessary to avoid competing with the final day of the NFL’s regular season.

It was a game between two very good teams vying for supremacy in both the Atlantic Division and, along with the Boston Bruins, the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia broke a scoreless tie on 20-year old Brayden Schenn’s first NHL goal just past the midpoint of the second period, and the Flyers doubled their lead on a goal by Claude Giroux less than two minutes later. But the Rangers began to rally on the very next shift, with Mike Rupp putting a wrist shot past Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Then Rupp scored again early in the third period to tie the score, and Brad Richards knocked home a rebound at the 5:21 mark to finally put New York in front. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped everything the Flyers threw at him over the game’s remaining minutes, including a penalty shot from Philadelphia’s Danny Briere with just 19.6 seconds left to play.

So with a big come-from-behind win over his team’s closest divisional rival, one might assume that Tortorella would be both happy and magnanimous. One would of course be wrong. Instead, in his post-game interview the Rangers head coach sounded like his players had just had a victory stolen from them. “I’m not sure if NBC got together with the refs and wanted to turn this into an overtime game,” he said; adding “For two good referees, I thought that game was reffed horribly.” Unable to leave bad enough alone, Tortorella repeated his accusation of a league and network conspiracy, saying “I’m not sure if they had meetings about that or what.” He went on to call the officiating “disgusting,” and complained about alleged non-calls against the Flyers as well as the whistle on Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonough for covering the puck in the crease that resulted in the penalty shot.

Coaches complain about officiating all the time of course, and most have a hard time ever seeing any of their players actually doing anything wrong even as they spot myriad infractions by their opponents. But Tortorella’s comments, coming on the heels of a victory no less, rose to another level. He was suggesting not just bad calls, but intentionally bad calls made with the goal of altering the game’s outcome. There is a term for that kind of behavior. It’s called cheating.

John Tortorella is a good coach, having led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004. His 379 regular season NHL wins are the most by an American-born head coach. At both Tampa Bay and New York he’s been a favorite of his players, and he clearly has the Rangers on the right track this year. But with success and a spot in the limelight comes responsibility. By suggesting that the officiating crew was trying to throw the most-watched game of the NHL’s regular season he utterly defaulted on that responsibility, and wound up looking like a paranoid fool in the process. If he thought he was being either funny or sarcastic, he was dead wrong.

Meanwhile in an interview with the New York Times, former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, a veteran of more than 2,100 regular season and playoff games, either agreed outright with the various calls or found them reasonable judgment decisions by the officials on the ice.

The NHL responded to Tortorella’s circus act by fining him $30,000. In a statement, NHL senior vice president Colin Campbell said “There is no acceptable explanation or excuse for commentary challenging the integrity of the league, its officials, or its broadcast partners. People can disagree with calls by officials on the ice, but even in instances of the utmost frustration, there is no justification for speaking as inappropriately and irresponsibly as Mr. Tortorella did.”

As the decided fourth of the four major team sports leagues in North America, the NHL looks to the Winter Classic as its annual opportunity to appear on flat screens that aren’t often tuned in to hockey, and perhaps along the way to recruit a few new fans. The last thing it needs as part of its outdoor spectacle is a suggestion that the fix is in. Tortorella seems to have finally grasped that concept, albeit belatedly. After the Rangers Wednesday afternoon practice, he issued repeated apologies, saying at one point “I tainted the Classic with my mouth.” At least he got that right. Now shut up and coach.

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