John Tortorella was suspended by the NHL on Monday for 15 days without pay from the Vancouver Canucks, after an incident Saturday night when he was caught on camera forcefully chasing the Calgary Flames coaches back to their dressing room after the first period.
Tortorella will miss six Canucks games; Vancouver has 10 games left before the Sochi Olympics break in the schedule.
The incident was sparked by Flames coach Bob Hartley’s decision to start his fourth line in the game, prompting Tortorella to send out his fourth line. The resulting line brawl resulted in 152 penalty minutes in just two seconds of play.
Hartley was given a $25,000 fine by the NHL for “conduct prejudicial to or against the welfare of the League”; in other words, for instigating the brawl with his player selection.
But it was Tortorella’s actions in the hallway to the Flames' dressing room that drew the biggest rebuke from the League. Hartley refused to acknowledge Tortorella when the Canucks coach profanely protested the lineup move with a tirade directed at the Calgary bench.
So Tortorella followed the Flames to their dressing room entrance and had to be physically restrained from going after them.
Here’s NHL VP of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell on Hartley:
"We are holding Mr. Hartley responsible for the actions of Flames' right wing Kevin Westgarth, who took the game's opening face-off and attempted to instigate a premeditated fight with an unwilling opponent -- the Canucks' Kevin Bieksa."
(Interesting that Bieksa moved up from his defensive position to take that faceoff against Westgarth to protect rookie Kellain Lain, making his NHL debut. It was a move Tortorella likely instructed, having done much the same thing as coach of the New York Rangers when he moved Stu Bickel up to take a draw in order to protect Brandon Dubinsky in a pending line brawl against the Devils in 2012.)
As for Tortorella, Campbell said:
"Mr. Tortorella's actions in attempting to enter the Calgary Flames locker room after the first period were both dangerous and an embarrassment to the League. Coaches in the NHL bear the responsibility of providing leadership, even when emotions run high, and Mr. Tortorella failed in his responsibility to the game."
Tortorella is not permitted to have any interaction with the Canucks prior to, during or after games. The suspension is retroactive to Jan. 19.
There’s no question Hartley instigated the incident. It’s something other coaches have done, including Tortorella himself in a Dec. 20, 2011 game at the Devils. Was there a way for Tortorella to defuse the incident by, say, putting his skill players out there? Potentially, although he ran the risk of having a John Scott-chasing-Phil Kessel incident like we saw earlier this season.
But more to the point: Hartley challenged the toughness of Tortorella’s team, and then antagonized a coach with the League's shortest fuse.
Tortorella’s response, however, was an embarrassment to the League, even if it may have crystallized his stature with the Canucks in the dressing room. It was a coach completely out of control, and then lying through his teeth about the deplorability of Hartley’s tactics as badly as Hartley lied about using them.
It followed other punished incidents – squirting a fan with a water bottle in 2009, openly wondering if there was an NHL/NBC conspiracy with the officiating after the 2012 Winter Classic – that also embarrassed the League.
So the NHL came down with a suspension that impacts Tortorella financially – how much was undisclosed – and takes him off the bench for six games within the competitive Western Conference.
It’s a ruling that hits Tortorella hard, while still holding Hartley accountable for his role in the melee. But will it be enough to cool a personal rivalry that goes all the way back to 1995, and apparently still rages 19 years later?