The fallout from the gong show in Vancouver on Saturday night between the Flames and Canucks has included no shortage of opinions about who was to blame for a 10-man brawl, eight ejections and 204 penalty minutes.
It’s all John Tortorella’s fault, because he could have started his first, second or third line against the goon squad iced by the Flames.
It’s all Bob Hartley’s fault, because by starting a collection of players who make a living mostly on their ability to punch faces, it left Tortorella and the Canucks no choice.
It’s all Brian Burke’s fault, because his penchant for violence over skill, masked in language about truculence and toughness, has become Calgary’s identity since he fired general manager Jay Feaster five weeks ago.
The truth of the matter is that there’s enough blame to go around for everyone.
The instigators were clearly the Flames. As the road team, they are charged with submitting their starting lineup first and, in their infinite wisdom, iced a trio of Brian McGrattan, Kevin Westgarth and Blair Jones. For their careers, McGrattan and Westgarth have 10 goals and 828 penalty minutes in 422 games.
It’s a window into why the Flames have been so inept this season and will be that way for years to come.
Hartley has handed in 25 lineup cards as the coach of the visiting team this season, and Saturday night was the first time he decided it would be best to dress two bouncers on skates who couldn’t stick-handle around a fire hydrant.
A decision like that certainly comes from the top. Burke values fighting in hockey the way a man lost in the desert values cold water, and now he has Hartley drinking from the fountain of bare-knuckle justice. It doesn’t absolve Hartley in the least, but his complicity in the arrangement probably wasn’t coerced.
Following the game, Tortorella hinted to the media that this was to be expected of Hartley, and it turns out the two have a history.
When Tortorella was coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning and Hartley was behind the bench of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2005, Thrashers “hockey player” Eric Boulton knocked Lightning defenseman Paul Ranger from the game with a blow to head.
While the new-age Tortorella showed restraint Saturday in discussing the melee, he was far more direct nine years ago when taking about Boulton. From The Associated Press game story that night (via USA Today), in which the ellipses represent expletives:
The ... guy should be playing in the ... East Coast Hockey League, but instead he takes out a ... NHLer. He'll be suspended, but who ... cares? No one wants to see him on the ice anyway.
So what was Tortorella to do when Hartley trotted out his fourth line Saturday? Should he have thrown out the Sedins to take the opening faceoff? Perhaps sent Ryan Kesler’s line over the boards? Why not take advantage of players whose skating ability rival that of drunken giraffes and score a quick goal?
Tortorella had this option in March 2012 as coach of the New York Rangers in a home game against the New Jersey Devils. Coach Peter DeBoer started a fourth line that consisted of noted hockey star Cam Janssen, Boulton and center Ryan Carter, who is willing to fight but doesn’t draw a paycheck from it.
Instead of sending Ryan Callahan or Marian Gaborik over the boards, Tortorella decided to do exactly what he did last night—he sent out Brandon Prust and Mike Rupp and had defenseman Stu Bickel take the faceoff. A six-man donnybrook ensued, and Carter’s blood had to be scraped from the ice.
It was déjà vu in Vancouver, as Tortorella eschewed the notion of starting the game with skilled players and instead went with Sestito and friends. Like any good sequel, Tortorella added another element, this time trying to invade the Flames locker room after the first period to fight anyone wearing red.
The fury was captured by CBC cameras and will likely result in a suspension for Tortorella, who otherwise had a chance to come off looking like the enlightened one in comparison after the game.
Tortorella’s argument was a sound one—why risk starting the Sedins against a group of gorillas? Sure, McGrattan claims to be a faithful reader of the popular book entitled The Code, but what if he decided to ignore it? What if he grabbed Daniel Sedin and beat him so badly that he had to miss two weeks with a concussion?
That alternative scenario would’ve led to Tortorella being placed in a cannon by Gillis and fired into the Pacific Ocean.
What makes Tortorella and the Canucks a large part of the problem is that they are easy marks. Notice that the Flames didn’t try this against any other team all season. If the Canucks were more like the Detroit Red Wings and didn’t have three serviceable fighters on the roster, Hartley, Burke and the Flames wouldn’t have turned the start of the hockey game into a catastrophe.
“Who can we throw our fourth line out against and get a response?” I can imagine Burke saying to himself in his office before noticing the Canucks coming up on the schedule. “Torts took the bait on this once before so I know he’ll take it again.”
Like it or not, fighting is part of the National Hockey League in 2014. As long as that continues to be the case, the NHL will always leave itself open to criticism that it’s a garage league because of the potential for events like this one. Tortorella is simply arming his team in what is considered an acceptable way, much like many others teams do.
Until fighting becomes recognized as the antiquated notion that it is, Burke, Hartley, Gillis and Tortorella will always have it within their power to take the NHL back to the stone age in a moment’s notice.