By Stu Hackel
John Tortorella’s paranoid rant at NHL officiating and NBC after the Winter Classic put a sour exclamation point on an otherwise triumphant afternoon for his team and hockey in general. Tortorella, who has done a terrific job guiding the Rangers to their first place standing in the league, alleged the NHL had conspired with NBC to try to get the game to overtime.
UPDATE 9:30 pm: The NHL announced Wednesday evening it had fined Tortorella $30,000 for his comments. “There is no acceptable explanation or excuse for commentary challenging the integrity of the League, its officials or its broadcast partners,” said NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell. “People can disagree with calls by officials on the ice, but even in instances of the utmost frustration there is no justification for speaking as inappropriately and irresponsibly as Mr. Tortorella did.”
Here is Tortorella’s postgame session in the interview room at Citizens Bank Park. The relevant passages come just before the nine-minute mark, when he goes after the league, the network and referees Ian Walsh and Dennis LaRue by saying, “I’m not sure if NBC got together with the refs to turn this into an overtime game. It started with a non-call on (Marian Gaborik). Gabby’s walking and he gets pitchforked in the stomach, and then everything starts going against us. They are two good referees; I thought the game was reffed horribly. I”m not sure what happened there. Maybe they wanted to get it to overtime. I’m not sure if they have meetings about that or what….It was disgusting.”
This is not about whether you think that the referees made the right calls or not. They may or may not have gotten all of them right — that’s not the issue. But to allege that the league conspired with NBC to rig the outcome of the game is truly outrageous.
It’s one thing to be frustrated by an official’s calls, something which can happen in any game at any point of the season. There’s no more difficult game to referee than hockey, and these guys don’t do everything right, just as players and coaches make mistakes. But it’s another thing to recklessly allow your frustration (or even gamesmanship) to inflate to a point where you infer, if not charge, that the competition is unfair. To suggest that the league’s national U.S. TV rights holder, which has done such commendable work to promote the sport and develop a larger audience, initiated or participated in discussions to undercut the competitive nature of this showcase event is way over the line of propriety.
These remarks by Tortorella can’t be lightly dismissed. It’s not overstating things to maintain that the single most damaging thing that can happen in professional sports is to destroy the integrity of the competition. If the outcome of a game is predetermined or influenced by external factors, the entire foundation on which that sport exists has to be called into question. To allege that this is what happened on Monday afternoon in Philadelphia falls squarely in the category of not being in the best interests of the NHL as well as being pretty insulting to its broadcast partner.
Even if he escapes without a fine, the NHL should elicit a public apology from Tortorella. Actually, he shouldn’t wait for them to tell him to do that. He should be wise enough to do it on his own.
UPDATE 2:30 pm: Tortorella did apologize Wednesday after Rangers’ practice, saying, “I tainted the Classic with my mouth. It was wrong with my sarcasm and frustration and I apologize to everyone involved….Not for a second, in no way, time, shape or form did I think anything like that goes on with our league, or ever will. For me to question the integrity of the league, the integrity of NBC, the integrity of Denny and Ian, the Flyers, the Rangers, go right on through all the people here – there’s not a chance I am thinking that way.”