To anyone involved in organized sports within the last several years, it has unfortunately become more and more common to hear about parents, players, coaches, and fans losing sight of the idea that “it’s just a game.” However, to Coach John Tortarella of the Vancouver Canucks, it was about standing up for his men- even if that cost him his ability to do his job.
The starting lineup of the Calgary Flames that night consisted of the team’s most recognized bruisers, which Tortarella interpreted as an attempt by Calgary’s Coach, Bob Hartley, to injure his best players and usual starters. In response, the Canucks’ top fighters were sent out onto the ice to greet the Flames. Chaos quickly ensued only two seconds into the game and the players became involved in a full ice melee that the three officials had difficulty controlling. Luckily, they were able to finish the period before Tortarella instigated round two in the tunnels of Rogers Arena during the first intermission through his attempts to bust into the Flames’ locker room and confront Coach Hartley. Although Tortarella was restrained and turned away, Flames’ goalie coach Clint Malarchuk felt the need to stand up for his men and began tracking the retreating Tortarella before being held back himself. This time around, John Tortarella received fifteen days suspension without pay and isolation from his team during the suspension as punishment from the League.
Before the action of the eventful night of January 18th, it is important to know a little hockey history. Despite the common stereotype that all Canadians are pacifists who live to be remarkably polite in every situation, Vancouver has tarnished their previously sterling reputation in recent years. When it comes to the nation’s major pastime, Vancouverites cannot be more serious. Most sports fans will remember the infamous riots that broke out following Game Seven of the Stanley Cup in Vancouver in 2011 when the hometown Canucks lost the Hockey Holy Grail to the Boston Bruins. As early as the first period of the game, Canuck fans had begun to chant, “Let’s go riot, Let’s go riot!” and once their team’s fate had been sealed, that is exactly what they did. Mirroring the events of the 1994 riots in Vancouver when the Canucks lost in Game Seven to the New York Rangers, fans took control of the downtown area as the police used force to try and end the chaos. Cars were flipped and burned alongside Bruins and Canucks jerseys alike. People were trampled, storefronts were destroyed as their wares were stolen, and the audience of the Broadway show Wicked at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre was trapped inside when they attempted to leave the building that was located in the heart of the rioting. Needless to say, Vancouver hockey fans showed their true colors that night.
However, they are not the only ones who have a less-than-perfect record. Coach John Tortarella has also had quite the colorful past. Previously the coach of both the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers, Tortarella built a reputation on each team as a man with a short fuse both on the bench and in front of the mic during press conferences. While with the Lightning, Tortarella was infamously harsh on his goaltenders, and even drove goalie John Grahame from the team. Then, Tortarella was trite to the point of rudeness with reporter Larry Brooks, who he finished off with an f bomb when Brooks called him out on it. Violent John emerged with the Rangers when Tortarella not only chucked a water bottle at a heckling fan, but then proceeded to attempt spearing the man with a stick through the gap in the glass that separated them. The NHL suspended him for a game. He was punished, but some questioned whether that was enough. At this point, it would seem not. Tortarella apparently did not learn his lesson or adopt a cooler head if his history has anything to do with the events of January 18th.
As keen as many are to pin the blame on the rowdy Vancouverite fan base and their fiery coach, the NHL may play a part in encouraging this kind of behavior. Any Buffalo fan will remember Captain Chris Drury and how much he meant to the Sabres. That being said, Sabres fans will also remember how terrible it was to watch their hero be pummeled to a pulp in front of their very eyes on home ice in a 2007 game versus the Ottawa Senators. The initial blow was delivered by Senator Chris Neil who sucker-punched Drury in what Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff described at the time as, “a predator-type of hit where Chris was vulnerable. Neil went out of his way to deliver a blow to Chris’ head… a deliberate attempt to put someone out.” His players agreed, and this also resulted in a fight on the ice between the opponents. Drury was out of the lineup for several games following due to concussion symptoms and a recovery period for the twenty stitches on his forehead. Buffalo fans in 2007 thought fighting and violence in hockey had gone too far that night.
Just four years later, those same fans thought a little differently- the violence had not gone far enough on November 12th, 2011 when their world-class goalie Ryan Miller received a powerful blow to the head from Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins. Miller was diagnosed with a concussion, and his teammates did not do anything to avenge their fallen keeper. The fans were outraged and felt that the Sabres had betrayed their poor goalie by not standing up for him and fighting back. Their cries became more bloodthirsty as they discovered Lucic would not be brought to justice by the NHL, who had determined that the hit was not intended to cause Miller any harm. Lindy Ruff fueled the fire by admitting his disappointment in his men for not defending their teammate and angrily avoiding the media the next day. Buffalo General Manager Darcy Regehr filled in for Ruff, stating, “You want to stick up for one another and be there for one another. Do I think we could have done a better job of that? Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
This is the atmosphere into which the situation in Calgary came to be. It is a violent culture that the NHL has adopted, that is hard to deny. The fans call for blood and are entertained by the fighting, their kids are raised around the violence so they come to view it as just another part of the game, these kids become players who carry out the violence on the ice, and the players become coaches who condone-if not demand- this sort of action from their players. However, it seems as though the NHL and its affiliates realize this and wish to save face, as demonstrated by Colin Campbell’s remarks on the recent brawl. “Mr. Tortorella’s actions in attempting to enter the Calgary Flames locker room after the first period were both dangerous and an embarrassment to the League,” said Colin Campbell, senior vice president of hockey operations, in a statement. “Coaches in the NHL bear the responsibility of providing leadership, even when emotions run high, and Mr. Tortorella failed in his responsibility to the game.” These words beg the question of sincerity, as it is difficult to believe that these are the NHL’s true feelings on the issue when men like Tortarella speak out of both sides of their mouth, as well. “I thought my players responded tremendously,” said Tortorella. “Listen – it shouldn’t be in the game, that stuff. I don’t want it in the game. But I have to protect my team, too. So all the pundits, all the people pissing and moaning, they don’t have a clue what a locker-room’s about. They don’t understand the whole circumstance involved in that type of situation.” If what they are doing is protecting the current bloodthirstiness of the hockey culture, can they be blamed? Hockey is supposedly entertainment, and the fans ultimately determine how they prefer to be entertained. Thus, excited reactions on social media that giddily compare the fighting between Vancouver and Calgary to WWE matches may make the players, coaches, and commissioners think they are doing something right, despite their supposed disapproval of the situation. It may be justified, it may just be an integral part of the game. In the end, it will be up to the fans to decide whether they can, should, or want to take the fight out of hockey.