So there was Vancouver Canucks coach John Tortorella, who had more or less been on his best behaviour all season, trying to get to the Calgary Flames’ dressing room after a brawl-filled first period to challenge … who? Bob Hartley, the Flames coach? Probably. It wouldn’t have made any sense to go after Brian McGrattan, who had duked it out with the Canucks’ Tom Sestito during a 1970s-style line brawl that broke out two seconds into Saturday night’s game between the Pacific Division rivals and conjured up images of three guys wearing funny glasses, talking about old-time hockey.
Yes, Slap Shot – the 2014 version – was on Saturday night, the last act of Hockey Night In Canada’s endless day-long broadcast. If you went to bed at a reasonable hour, here’s what you missed:
Hartley started the game with his fourth line – Kevin Westgarth at centre between McGrattan and Blair Jones, on the grounds that they’d been playing well lately, in losing seven in a row at home. Whenever Tortorella sees a fourth line starting a game, he responds with his own fourth line – and then goes bananas on the opposing coach. (See Tortorella versus the New Jersey Devils’ Pete DeBoer during the 2012 playoffs). Sestito said it about as well as anyone could, that Tortorella advised his players that because the Flames were starting their “idiots,” the Canucks had to respond in kind.
Sestito went out, as did did Dale Weise, with rookie centre Kellan Lain between them. Just before puck drop, however, Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa assessed the moment; decided he didn’t like what he saw; and shooed Lain out of the circle. In the end, it was Bieksa there when the puck dropped and Westgarth jumped him. Everybody paired off, McGrattan and Sestito took part in the main event and when the dust settled, eight players – four per team – were ejected.
But Tortorella wasn’t done. After the first period, television cameras caught him in the corridor, outside the Flames’ dressing room, making his views known. McGrattan fended him off, and eventually Flames goaltending coach Clint Malarchuk made a beeline toward Tortorella, only to be restrained by the team’s staff.
Tortorella’s legendary temper finally got the best of him, and one would think that NHL senior vice-president Colin Campbell will have a word with him about conduct unbecoming a coach. It is hard to imagine any scenario under which Tortorella isn’t fined or suspended. Hartley too, given that back in the NHL preseason, the league fined then-Buffalo Sabres coach Ron Rolston for “player selection” – he put tough guy John Scott out against the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, trying to start something.
Hartley and Tortorella have a history dating to Tortorella’s days coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning when Hartley was running the Atlanta Thrashers. They had a memorable confrontation in 2005, when Tortorella blasted the Thrashers for deploying a tough guy named Eric Boulton to go after defenceman Paul Ranger, then with Tampa.
“I see the starting lineup and I know the other guy across the bench,” Tortorella said after. “It’s easy for people to say, ‘well put the Sedins out there and it’s deflated.’ I can’t put our players at risk that way. With the lineup he had, I’m not going to put those types of players at risk – and that’s what ensues. I’m not proud of it. I’ve apologized to every player involved. I don’t feel great about it at all.
“I thought my players responded tremendously. 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.”
Naturally, Hartley saw it from a different perspective.
“We had absolutely zero intentions there,” he said. “Those guys are playing hard for us. We’re a disciplined hockey club and, as far as I know, they were the home team, so they had the luxury to put whoever they wanted out on the ice.”
The first two seconds overshadowed what was otherwise an entertaining and hard-fought hockey game. Because each team lost two defencemen right off the hop, it meant that the key defenders on both clubs played yeoman minutes and Vancouver squeaked out the victory, tying the game on a third-period power play and winning in the fifth round of the shootout.
Of course, Calgary’s been talking about truculence and testosterone ever since Brian Burke came in to run hockey operations. If the Flames are going to be bad, it looks as if they plan to go down swinging – and the Canucks seem intent on swinging back.
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