When it happened, it felt like it was destined to be the defining moment of the Vancouver Canucks’ season.
There he was, John Tortorella, in images broadcast on Hockey Night in Canada, in a melee in January, in the tunnel outside the Calgary Flames’ dressing room after the first period.
The NHL suspended him for a half-month and called his actions “dangerous and an embarrassment to the league.”
On Wednesday, the fate of the head coach of the Canucks became the focus of the team’s spiralling decline – during which Vancouver has lost three-quarters of its games since Tortorella’s explosion.
The Vancouver Province, in an editorial Wednesday, demanded Tortorella’s immediate firing – “for fans’ sake.”
The coach’s boss, Team president Mike Gillis was pressed by reporters in Florida on the topic. Gillis, at the NHL general managers’ meeting, gave only a lukewarm backing of the coach, waving off talk of Tortorella’s future as rumours and speculation.
But it was Gillis’s point of emphasis that spoke strongest. If Tortorella is fired, quickly or eventually, his blow-up in Calgary is forefront.
“We had an incident in January that, uh,” Gillis said, pausing to take a deep breath, “that was hard to describe. And you know it is what it is. We have to continue and try to find ways to win games.”
As of Jan. 18, defeating the Flames in a shootout and losing their coach, the Canucks looked not bad, struggling somewhat but holding on to one of the two wild-card places in the difficult Western Conference, standing in seventh. While some said the team could manage through Tortorella’s suspension, others predicted the blow would be a significant self-inflicted wound.
The Canucks went 2-4 without their coach and have done worse since. The team has sunk to 11th in the West as of Wednesday morning, and has only a fractional glimpse at the postseason, which two months ago seemed certain. More extraordinary, the team has gone from one in a slump to, almost instantly, a franchise looking to overhaul itself, trading veteran goalie Roberto Luongo and trying to move forward Ryan Kesler.
Analytics website sportclubstats.com calculates the Canucks have a 2-per-cent chance to make the postseason: It’s like the period at the end of a sentence.
Fans had started giving up weeks ago. A Wednesday night game in Winnipeg felt important (like the Canucks, the Jets had 68 points, but hold a game in hand), but realistically doesn’t mean much (the Jets have a calculated 3.1-per-cent chance for the playoffs).
An immediate firing of Tortorella, who was hired only this past summer, seems unnecessarily jarring and not a move that’s going to spark the right change. But it also seems unlikely, unless something really changes, that Tortorella holds on to his job in Vancouver. Everything’s gone wrong and there is no sense he can lead the righting of things, even if given another shot next year.
There’s a lot of blame to share: Gillis, to start; team owner Francesco Aquilini is deeply involved; and there are problems on the ice, such as zero goals in 35 games for Alexandre Burrows, who is making $6-million (U.S.) this season. But the likeliest candidate for change is always the coach.
On Wednesday night, Vancouver squeezed a 3-2 win in a shootout over Winnipeg - and while Burrows scored his first and second goals of the year, Kesler left the game with a knee injury.
In 2013, when hiring Tortorella after firing Alain Vigneault, Gillis said a coaching change is the quickest way to spark renewal. With Tortorella, Aquilini and Gillis gambled, and Tortorella blew up on them.
This past Monday was a low among low points, when the Canucks blew a 3-0 lead at home and gave up seven goals in the third period to the New York Islanders, losing 7-4.
“It’s on my watch,” Tortorella said the next day, “what’s going on here. And I know the area, I know the owners, I know my general manger, are not sitting well with it.”