Everyone knew that John Tortorella would pay a hefty price for his shenanigans during the first intermission of Saturday night’s game against the Flames. And when he picked up the tab on Monday, it was steep: a 15-day suspension for actions the league deemed “both dangerous and an embarrassment.”
For his breach of protocol, Tortorella will miss six games, including Tuesday night’s contest with the Oilers, and is prohibited from having contact of any kind with his Canucks. That means no access to Rogers Arena. No practices. No video sessions. No emails asking what guys are doing on Super Bowl Sunday.
It’s a stiff sentence … but what if it’s all worth it? What if, instead of sending a rudderless team into deeper waters, this is exactly what Vancouver needs: the temporary martyrdom of its coach acting as the galvanizing moment that turns their season around?
If it plays out that way, it couldn’t happen at a better time.
These Canucks haven’t just lost eight of their past 10 games. They’ve lost their way. They know what they want their identity to be: a gritty, two-way, in-your-face game that looks a lot like Brad Marchand and the rest of the hated Bruins. The problem is, it’s not easy to sell players on that program. Especially not players who’ve grown comfortable over the years playing a more passive, skill-intensive game.
It might have been the frustration with that dilemma that led Tortorella to meet the challenge when Calgary coach Bob Hartley started a lineup of goons — rather than defusing the situation by starting a skill line — and to race to the Flames’ dressing room in hopes of confronting Hartley after a fractious first period.
Intentional or not — he certainly won’t say — a point was made.
“Everyone in this locker room, including myself, is staying behind John,” said Vancouver winger Zack Kassian. “When we brought him in here we wanted to change the culture of this team and he is doing that. We stand behind him 100 percent. When your coach has that much passion, it’s tough as players not to go out there and give it right back.”
“I think it shows how passionate he is and how much he cares about his team,” said defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who lined up at center for the opening face-off that precipitated the brawl. “I think you respect a coach more when you see that he’ll watch your back and you see how much he cares. We’re not just pawns out there. We’re not just guys he is sticking out there to fight. He cares that we had to go through that.”
It’s only fair to point out here that players like Kassian and Bieksa didn’t need the hard-sell to commit heart and soul to Tortorella’s brand of hockey. But Daniel Sedin, who famously turned the other cheek while being speed-bagged by Marchand in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, wasn’t quite as inspired by the coach’s actions.
“He’s an intense guy and he is really into games,” Sedin said of Tortorella. “I think that’s why he went into that situation. He was frustrated and angry. It’s unfortunate. You don’t ever want to see that happen, but it happened.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but with vocal leaders like Bieksa and Ryan (“I personally like what went on Saturday night.”) Kesler on board, the seeds of something bigger have clearly taken root in the room.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Tortorella’s approach works. It won’t turn this Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight into icy-veined snipers, or add depth where GM Mike Gillis has failed to create any. But there’s no denying that moments like this can change the atmosphere in a room by giving it focus, by creating a flag to rally around. An all-for-one commitment that pays off in puck battles won, control of the middle of the ice and something close to 60-minute intensity.
It’ll be up to assistant coaches Mike Sullivan and Glen Gulutzan to cultivate that intensity over the next six games while Tortorella sits out. After that, if the coach gambled correctly, he’ll return to find a team hungrier and more focused than he left it. That would certainly be worth 15 days.
And if not? Well, things couldn’t really get much worse for the Canucks, could they?
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