There are many things said about Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella.
One of the things you hear, when you speak with the men who know him best, is his devotion to his team. Tortorella has, his whole life in sports, poured everything – his body, his mind, his fiery and sometimes unruly passion – into his team.
“He lived and died for the team,” John Muckler recalled in an interview last fall. In the early 1990s, Muckler was the bench boss in Buffalo, where Tortorella had his first NHL gig as an assistant.
Last Saturday, in a chaotic swirl in Vancouver, Tortorella’s commitment to his team spilled over, charging into a confrontation after the first period outside the Calgary Flames dressing room – and it has cost the Canucks.
After a hearing in New York, Tortorella was suspended Monday by the NHL for 15 days – which equates to six Canucks games – and is banned from any interaction with the club during the suspension.
His actions, the NHL said, were “dangerous and an embarrassment to the league.”
“Coaches in the NHL bear the responsibility of providing leadership, even when emotions run high,” NHL senior executive vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell said in a statement. “Mr. Tortorella failed in his responsibility to the game.”
The league also fined Calgary coach Bob Hartley $25,000 (U.S.), holding him responsible for the fight that started the line brawl that opened last Saturday’s game.
The loss of Tortorella could not come at a worse time.
The coach will not be back until Feb. 3, when the Canucks meets the Red Wings in Detroit. Vancouver sits in a precarious seventh place in the Western Conference and has won just two of its past 10 games – one of those coming against Calgary, needing a shootout to beat the third-worst team in the league.
In Tortorella’s place steps assistant Mike Sullivan, who was head coach of the Boston Bruins for two seasons in the mid-2000s. Glen Gulutzan, Vancouver’s other assistant, is fresh off two seasons as head coach of the Dallas Stars.
This is the third time in Tortorella’s two-decade-plus NHL career he has been suspended. Since his hiring by the Canucks last June, the previously volatile coach was mostly restrained, having promised, in his own words, to not be “that lunatic,” chastened after his firing by the New York Rangers.
It was a honeymoon. There were bets about when the other Tortorella would emerge. The general figuring was the dark depths of winter, if, or when, the Canucks were struggling.
There had been rumblings.
Early on in the season, Tortorella threatened to walk out of press conferences for minor annoyances like a cellphone ringing. He upbraided a few players on the bench, repeatedly poking Jannik Hansen for a blown play while screaming at him.
Then, last Saturday morning, Tortorella didn’t like a reporter’s question about the wisdom of playing Henrik Sedin when the forward seemed to be dealing with injury. Tortorella later said on the radio that he was tempted to “strangle” the questioner. (Sedin, it emerged, was in fact injured.)
It was all prelude. After the line brawl to start the Canucks-Flames tilt, Tortorella exploded at the first intermission. It was, evidently, the extension of a grudge with Hartley that goes back to the mid-1990s, when they were minor-league coaches – a long time to harbour anger.
The images, broadcast by the CBC, will be the permanent highlight of this Canucks season, one that could only be topped by a Stanley Cup victory.
What Tortorella was thinking is only speculation. “Don’t push me,” he said to reporters after the game.
On Monday, in Vancouver, Sullivan, a long-time Tortorella assistant, said he couldn’t comment on behalf of his boss.
Sullivan, who was not contacted by the NHL, was in the hallway last Saturday with Tortorella, behind him. “From my standpoint, it was more, you know, making sure that Torts was going to be okay,” he said.
Tortorella, the man so devoted to team, faces the consequences of his actions, and the Canucks pay for it.
Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini and team president Mike Gillis hired Tortorella for his fire. Playing with fire is a dangerous business. Tortorella was to rouse this team, get something out a veteran squad his predecessor, Alain Vigneault, could not.
After 50 games this season, the Canucks are no better than they were a year ago. And the sought-after fire has, at least, singed the difficult push for the playoffs.