NEW YORK – Rangers coach John Tortorella has been suspended by the NHL for one game because he squirted a fan with water and threw a water bottle into the stands, striking a spectator in Washington.
Tortorella, who replaced the fired Tom Renney in February, will miss Game 6 on Sunday when New York hosts the Capitals with a chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
The NHL ruled Saturday night that Tortorella’s actions Friday during the Rangers’ 4-0 loss – which cut their series lead to 3-2 – warranted a serious punishment.
“While it is a difficult decision to suspend a coach at this point in a playoff series, it has been made clear to all of our players, coaches and other bench personnel that the National Hockey League cannot – and will not – tolerate any physical contact with fans,” league disciplinarian Colin Campbell said in a statement.
At 6:33 of the third period, Tortorella got into a verbal confrontation with a fan behind the bench. A video replay showed the coach heaving a green water bottle into the crowd. Tortorella then grabbed forward Aaron Voros’ stick and held it high, waving it in the fan’s direction.
“We do not take this action lightly,” Campbell said in his statement. “It is the result of an entire day of investigation and evaluation that included the retrieval and review of videotape of the incident and discussions with Mr. Tortorella, other Rangers’ bench personnel and a number of other people, including the security personnel at the Verizon Center.
“That investigation revealed that Mr. Tortorella squirted a fan with water before Mr. Tortorella was doused with a beverage.”
While it is customary to have three coaches on the bench, the Rangers have had only Jim Schoenfeld with Tortorella since Tom Renney and assistant Perry Pearn were fired, and Mike Pelino was reassigned on Feb. 23.
The Rangers’ top minor-league affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack, was eliminated from the AHL playoffs on Saturday night, so members of that coaching staff will be available Sunday.
Tortorella wasn’t on the ice for practice Saturday, but seemed confident while speaking to reporters after the session that he would be behind the bench Sunday. He said he was not allowed to speak about the matter.
“As far as that situation, I’ve been asked not to comment on that by my boss,” Tortorella said.
The Rangers voiced their displeasure in a brief statement issued by team spokesman John Rosasco.
“We disagree with the suspension and will have no further comment,” the club said.
The televised replay didn’t show whether anything was thrown at Tortorella, but he used a towel to wipe off his suit.
“While, in these circumstances, it always is easy to allege mitigating circumstances, the fact is we do not tolerate contact with our fans in this manner,” Campbell said. “That is communicated before each season in a memo that is issued by the league to all of the management, coaches and players of every team.”
The memo states that team personnel should ignore all fan actions, even if the spectator is “verbally abusive, intoxicated, or profane.” Assistance from the police or security personnel at the arena should be sought, if necessary.
“This prohibition extends to all forms of physical contact, whether it be direct physical contact, the throwing of objects (including hockey sticks and other equipment), or even the squirting of water,” the memo states. “While the latter form of conduct may have, in the past, seemed to be of a minor or harmless character, such conduct may serve only to incite and provoke an unruly fan and may ultimately lead to unforeseen consequences.”
The suspension was issued with the authority of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
The timing of Tortorella’s actions was a bit ironic because he scratched noted pest Sean Avery from the Game 5 lineup because of a lack of discipline. Avery took a pair of senseless penalties late in New York’s 2-1 win on Wednesday that gave the Rangers a 3-1 series lead.
Tortorella cautioned after Game 4 that undisciplined play would cost the club if it continued.
“If we keep flirting with discipline problems, we’ll lose – and not just one game,” Tortorella said.
Now he will miss a critical game, the last the Rangers will play at home in the matchup with Washington, while Avery might be back in action.