I felt sorry for John Tortorella Sunday afternoon.
That admission may shock those who’ve read my opinions over the years on the New York Rangers bench boss. By and large, I’ve found Tortorella to be a condescending scowl of a coach who deserves full marks and proper respect for winning a Stanley Cup, but nothing other than catcalls and raspberries for the way he held himself above his colleagues when he was being paid as an analyst at TSN.
(To see the analyst role done right, look at Peter Laviolette, Tortorella’s de facto replacement at TSN; the former Hurricanes and Isles coach is engaging, informative and looks as if he actually enjoys the job.)
Nevertheless, as NBC showed Tortorella sitting quietly Sunday in the upper echelons of Madison Square Garden – serving his one-game suspension for a run-in with a fan in Game 5 at the Verizon Center – while his New York Rangers were walloped 5-3 by Washington, I empathized with the guy.
It isn’t Tortorella’s fault this series is going to a seventh game. It’s the fault of the Rangers not named Henrik Lundqvist, all of whom haven’t been good enough in front of him.
Even if Lundqvist puts on his robber disguise for Game 7 Monday night, it’s difficult to imagine this team pushing past the Bruins, Penguins, Devils or Hurricanes in the second round. That’s because the Rangers, yet again, have been constructed by GM-from-an-undisclosed-location Glen Sather to be just good enough to make the playoffs and just bad enough to enjoy minimal success in those playoffs.
But that didn’t stop NBC from returning regularly during Game 6 to a shot of Tortorella in his suite, looking for any kind of a reaction from him as his players (coached for the day by assistant Jim Schoenfeld) meekly skated to defeat at the hands of the vastly superior Caps.
To his credit, Tortorella played the sphinx quite well – well enough that he started to creep me out. After he stayed calm once the Caps built a three-goal advantage, I thought he’d soon snap and run up the side of the Empire State Building holding Carrie Milbank in one hand and swatting at prop planes with the other.
Of course Tortorella was wrong in going after a fan during Game 5. And of course he deserved the suspension. But it’s difficult to believe he lost it because somebody hinted that his mother might’ve been familiar with army boots.
(Indeed, as the Rangers made clear in a letter to the NHL protesting Tortorella’s punishment, at least a few fans sitting behind the New York bench in Washington showed all the class of an un-flushed toilet in goading the Blueshirts coach into a reaction.)
With the series headed back to Washington – and with the Caps looking like they’re going to rebound from a 3-1 series deficit and move on to the second round – Tortorella’s regrettable Game 5 actions are going to be labeled by some as one of the main reasons the Rangers blew it.
That’s just not the case. As has become clear with every listless on-ice shift by the New Yorkers, this series never has been in the Rangers’ control. It’s been in the control of Lundqvist for three games and out of his control for the other three.
This is another year the Blueshirts have neither the talent nor the team chemistry to win without Lundqvist’s heroics.
Suspending that reality – and not Sean Avery’s antics or Tortorella’s Bruce Banner persona – is what will change the Rangers’ fortunes.
BEHIND THE SCENES
A couple final notes on my trip to Columbus last week:
The first one comes from Jackets defenseman Mike Commodore, who knows all about the fun inherent in placing – and following through on – a bet around this time of year.
“I had to wear (Calgary assistant coach) Rich Preston’s suit jacket one year,” said Commodore, who joined the Flames just in time for their last big playoff run in 2004. “I think I lost a bet on the ice leading up to the playoffs, so since I wasn’t playing, I had to go in and fire up all the guys with a pre-game speech.
“I didn’t really know the guys all that well, because I hadn’t been with the team that long. So I had (Preston’s) pants on, and his suit jacket – it was like a horse blanket; it was so nasty, way too small and bad colors – and I went storming into the locker room right before the game with no shirt on underneath the jacket and said a couple things to get everybody going.
“Then I stormed out of the room. The guys loved it and I had a good laugh, too.”
The chance to put your pride, if not your money, on the line is a chance Commodore highly recommends.
“That kind of stuff is part of the game,” Commodore said. “That’s why you come to sporting events and get involved with stuff like this, I think. You’re supposed to have fun, and little things like this allow you to act a little younger than your age. That’s what life is all about.”
The most touching thing I saw in Columbus wasn’t witnessed by thousands, or even dozens of people the night of Game 3.
It happened after the game, in the hallway of Nationwide Arena, as Red Wings coach Mike Babcock walked back to Detroit’s dressing room from his post-game press conference.
As a lot of coaches do this time of year, Babcock could have kept his head down and not acknowledged any person standing there in the corridor. But as soon as he saw Ryan Salmons – the 19-year-old, terminally ill cancer patient and Blue Jackets fan signed by Columbus to a one-day contract – Babcock stopped walking and proceeded to spend a good 10 minutes with the young man.
It was a truly classy move from Babcock – and something to consider the next time you or one of your drunken pals think of screaming some nutso, below-the-belt comment at him or one of his coaching colleagues when they visit your home arena.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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