Tortorella Triggers Old Question: Why Fight?

Next month in the wilds of Russia, terrorism permitting, the Winter Olympics again will present hockey at its best. The other night, John Tortorella and two goon squads gave us hockey at its worst.

The notorious hothead, now coaching the Vancouver Canucks, was at the center of a brawl with the Calgary Flames that started two seconds after the opening faceoff, led to 142 penalty minutes in the game’s first five minutes, spilled into the locker-room areas between periods and relaunched a familiar question: Why doesn’t the NHL ban fighting?

Why do commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners continue to degrade a wonderful sport with thuggery, whether it’s something ridiculous like the other night or Shawn Thornton’s senseless mauling of Brooks Orpik last month?

When the urge to throw fists and settle scores supercedes what is supposed to be the primary purpose — winning the hockey game — that’s when a fan should examine exactly what he’s getting for his financial investment. Some folks love the brawls, and some very serious hockey people think fighting is necessary to protect star players and enforce the honor and credibility of a team. That is, in a word, crap.

We’re allowing silly, little boys to engage in juvenile oneupsmanship. The problem on this night, as we’ve seen before, was Tortorella. When Calgary coach Bob Hartley opened the game with his fourth line — comprised of tough guys and low-level scorers — Torts took it to mean that the Flames were going to injure his skilled first-liners. So he matched their muckers with his, and off came the gloves, repeatedly throughout the first period. At intermission, he tried to charge into the Calgary locker room and was shoved away by Calgary’s chief enforcer, Brian McGrattan.

“I know the other guy across the bench,” Tortorella said. “It’s easy for people to say `well, put the Sedins (Vancouver stars Henrik and Daniel Sedin)out there and it’s deflated.’ I can’t put our players at risk like that. With the lineup that he had, I’m not going to put those types of players at risk and that’s what ensued.”

If this was his first retribution rodeo, we might give him a break. But Torts is the character who was involved in a similar 2012 incident with the New Jersey Devils, including the memorable scene when he screamed at opposing coach Peter DeBoer from the bench. Remember when he whipped a water bottle at a Washington Capitals fan and was suspended? A trail of trouble follows him. He won a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay and is skilled enough as a coach to maintain employment, snatched up quickly by the Canucks last year after he was fired by the New York Rangers. But the man has a problem.

Said Hartley, who refused to meet with Tortorella in his locker room: “I just don’t understand. I got out of there. I don’t need to get suspended or fined. There is nothing to be settled there. I just don’t understand what was going on.”

Why start the fourth line? “Those guys are playing well for us,” Hartley said. “They got a goal last game. We’re not scoring many goals. We had zero intentions there.”

Even if there were intentions, so what? If fighting wasn’t part of the game, the teams would have played on. “They started their goon squad over there,” said Vancouver enforcer Tom Sestito, the league leader in penalty minutes. “I just don’t think we’re going to be backing down from guys. Torts told us they were starting their idiots over there so we had to match that.

“It’s great that he has our back.”

Yeah, just great.

Does anyone know who won the hockey game? Does anyone care?

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