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Sorry, John Tortorella: Trevor Zegras' Highlight-Reel Assist Is Good for the NHL

Abbey MastraccoDecember 14, 2021

Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Last week, Trevor Zegras, the Anaheim Ducks' star young forward, set up linemate Sonny Milano with an unreal pass to score a lacrosse goal in Buffalo.

In case you also missed it over the weekend, former coach and current ESPN analyst John Tortorella had an awful take on that goal: It's bad for the game.

There is an argument to be made for not giving a bad take attention, but I'm taking the alternate route and explaining why that opinion is actually what's bad for the game.

It's difficult to describe just how difficult a goal like that is to pull off, so I'll just drop the video here.

Tortorella displayed an exceptionally outdated mindset, essentially saying that flash and panache have no place in hockey games. It's a strange take considering it's a game, and games are supposed to be fun.

"It's tremendously skilled," Tortorella said on Friday's ESPN broadcast. "For Sonny Milano even to yell 'Michigan' in the middle of a play, in a game, is a skill. That's a skilled play. My position, though is, is it good for the game? I hear Ray [Ferraro] ... like, all the kids are doing it now in practice and stuff like that. I'm not so sure.

"I'm not trying to be a fool here, I'm just not so sure it's great for the game. If you did that back in the 2000s, late '90s, you would get your head taken off. It's cool; it's cool to watch and all that, but I'm not so sure it's good for the game. And I stand by that."

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The 63-year-old former coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks and Tampa Bay Lightning is known for his old-school ways. A lot of players will tell you he's difficult to work with, but they usually say he has their backs

But it doesn't sound like he would have the back of Zegras, a burgeoning star in this league, if he were coaching that team. He may have even condoned someone on the Sabres taking a shot at Zegras on the ice. Hockey has previously had an unwritten system of checks and balances in place to make sure young players like Zegras don't try audacious plays like the one he pulled off against the Sabres. Usually, it's been on-ice enforcers sending a message through physical intimidation.

But that's not always the case anymore as enforcers have fallen by the wayside. Teams have to walk a fine line between protecting young players without sacrificing skill in the lineup. 

The problem with Tortorella saying along the lines of "Back in my day…" is that it's not his day anymore. 

Unfortunately, it's the same people—and let's face it, mostly white men—who have seemingly been running hockey for decades while the players on the ice have changed. Last week, the Vancouver Canucks fired general manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green and replaced them with two NHL retreads in Jim Rutherford and Bruce Boudreau. Last year, Rutherford stepped down as the GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the organization hired two executives from the same mold in Brian Burke and Ron Hextall. 

I have nothing against any of those men, and it is a great opportunity for someone like Boudreau, an affable players' coach, to get back in the game. But hockey hires the same people over and over again, which leads to exactly the type of stale thinking expressed by Tortorella. 

This conservatism in hockey culture creates barriers to entry. Women and people of color are often excluded from front offices and coaching staffs because they aren't the traditional "hockey guys." How do you know that someone like Angela James couldn't run a hockey operations department? The NHL loves nothing more than to play it safe and continually hire the same rotating cast of characters.

More diverse hires with different backgrounds and differing points of view would be healthy for the game and bring it in line with the society surrounding it. Instead of discouraging creativity and ingenuity like the Zegras play, why not welcome voices that see the benefits of highlighting it?

It's now leading to a generational divide between the men who think hockey should be played one way and the kids who are actually playing it at the highest levels today. The NHL has become a younger league in the past few seasons and getting farther and farther away from the old-school mindset that Tortorella champions. 

These players grew up playing video games, making their players score garish highlight-reel goals that would make the hockey dinosaurs blush. They're more candid, open and willing to share their lives off the ice thanks to having grown up in the age of social media. 

In the past, executives and coaches might have told players like Zegras to fall in line or sit on the bench, but that's not always possible in the salary-cap era. Zegras, who is all of 20 years old, is still on his entry-level contract through next season. He makes less than $1 million, and it allows a team like the upstart Ducks to have cap flexibility when trying to improve the roster. 

Zegras is also the second-leading point scorer on a team that leads the Pacific Division. I doubt coach Dallas Eakins is about to bench him. 

The "Michigan" goal will be an even bigger part of the NHL game in about five years. It's the signature move of Russian phenom Matvei Michkov, a forward who could be a top-five pick in the 2023 NHL Draft. He could be good enough to go No. 1 overall ahead of presumptive favorite Connor Bedard, but his contract with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL runs through the 2026 season.

What will Tortorella think the first time Michkov scores a Michigan goal for an NHL team? What will Michkov's general manager or head coach think? Is a coach going to pull a rookie from a game for…scoring a goal that is well within the rules?

The fans and their enjoyment are the two items that should be the priority for the NHL. They're buying tickets and watching the broadcasts. "Fun" should be an f-word that everyone in the game of hockey can get behind.

"I'm not trying to be difficult about it. It's fun to watch. It's really cool, but I just think our game has gone so far away from what the game should be," Tortorella said. "A hard game. An honest game. It's almost gotten too showman."

It's not Tortorella's game anymore. The game is dictated by the players on the ice. It's dictated by players like Zegras and soon Michkov. There are veteran captains such as Zegras' own, Ryan Getzlaf, who will guide young players and make sure there is a culture of accountability.

But, ultimately, hockey needs to continually find ways to reach new fans and keep them for life. Lacrosse goals will build interest, grab attention and grow ticket revenue. Flashy play hasn't hurt the NBA or the NFL. 

It's time for hockey to evolve and let the kids play.

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