In the world of sports, there has been a plethora of colorful characters over the years, but in more recent days, that seems to be changing. In an age where it is the norm rather than the exception for players to issue statements prepared by their publicists and for coaches to rely on tired cliches to explain decisions that they make, it is a sad reality that the days of guys like Billy Martin and Jim Mora have come and gone.
Granted, there are still exceptions to this rule of sanitized athletes and coaches. Guys like New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan have developed cult followings for the way that they handle interviews and press conferences, but for every guy like that you have 20 others who will offer you a response that is so canned that they ought to sell it at Costco.
That is why it is so unique that there is a guy like New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella on the scene in the NHL Playoffs. His constant barrage of criticism of officiating, of abrupt endings to press conferences, and even condemnation of the way that other teams play the game has served as some real theater for a city that is used to interesting sports characters. Torts may not have the longevity of a guy like Yogi Berra when it comes to making an impact on the Big Apple, but if these playoffs have taught us anything, it’s that we can never quite know what to expect from him.
For the sake of this examination of his style and the public’s reaction it, we will start with his criticism of officials. If there has been one thing that the playoffs have been known for this year (aside from the head-shaking that has gone on about the conduct that guys like James Neal and Raffi Torres have exhibited), it has been the amount of scorn earned by the NHL’s on-ice officials. Whether it is a blown call that gives an unfair advantage to one team or another, or an unwillingness to start handing out game misconduct penalties like beads to drunken revelers at Mardi Gras when things start getting out of hand, the men in stripes haven’t exactly had bouquets thrown at their feet during the postseason.
To his credit, Tortorella has kept his mouth shut as the playoffs have begun (more about that feat of control in a minute), but he has been fined multiple times this season to the tune of $50,000 for calling out referees for various indiscretions, as well as negative comments about the style of play of several teams. That second part of the equation may have him in hot water again, as he cut loose a string of accusations against the coach of the team his team is facing in the Eastern Conference Final.
On Sunday, Tortorella spoke to the media and lobbed several grenades in the direction of New Jersey Devils head coach Peter DeBoer. They included one that suggested that the Devils have been attempting to sell calls, and the other was that the Devils were setting illegal picks to get open shots on their power play, which was similar to the way he assailed the tactics of the Pittsburgh Penguins in early April.
The two coaches also got into a screaming match during Game 4 on Monday, so this clearly isn’t limited to just what is going on in the media room between games.
While some among the legion of hockey fans will be quick to rail against Tortorella for his accusatory tone and willingness to beat his chest a little bit in game action, it has been a great addition to this round of the playoffs. While the first round is always exciting with eight different series going on, the middle rounds of the postseason tend to be a desolate wasteland of lackluster hockey that suffers from both a lack of quality and quantity. The Stanley Cup Final, which is obviously the pinnacle of the “quantity” part of that statement, is by comparison much better in the quality department simply because of its status as the end of the line for the playoffs. With that in mind, there is sometimes a need to kick things up a notch, and if you are to look at it from that perspective, then Tortorella has done us all a favor.
If one were insistent on calling Torts out for something, then perhaps it would be for the unoriginal nature of his suggestion that the Devils are embellishing calls. He isn’t even the first coach to do it in this round, as Phoenix headmaster Dave Tippett accused the Kings of bringing dishonesty to the game. Most reaction to Tortorella’s comments was that he was just trying to take the focus off of his team, but the point he made was distressingly unoriginal, and not keeping in line with how well he has spiced things up this postseason.
While the spiciness of the playoffs has certainly kicked up a notch on the Scoville Scale, the interactions between Torts and the media have, for the most part, been checking in at around marshmallow levels of heat. Much has been made both in the mainstream media and the blogosphere about Tortorella’s unwillingness to answer questions and for the incredible shortness of his press conferences. Much like an angry significant other who has just discovered some horrible character flaw in your personality, Tortorella has leaned more on one-word answers and occasional ignoring of questions than just about any other coach would dare to. Some have written this off as rudeness and others as an unwillingness to help the media to do their jobs, but the fact is that Tortorella shouldn’t be assailed for the way he has gone about things.
To examine exactly why this is, we are going to need to consult a source that isn’t exactly sought after whenever a discussion about hockey comes up. After all, the author of this source (a book, to be precise) is much more known for his analytical mind when it comes to music and obscure college basketball references. He does write for the site Grantland.com, but he doesn’t exactly have an affinity for hockey.
His name is Chuck Klosterman, and he wrote a book a few years back entitled “Eating the Dinosaur”, which is a collection of essays on various topics like Pepsi making people think of President Barack Obama and examining what in the hell country music singer Garth Brooks was thinking when he went through his “Chris Gaines” phase.
None of that seems to have any bearing on the issue at hand, but the very first essay featured in the book does. The topic is interviewing, or more specifically, why people agree to be interviewed in the first place. Klosterman talks about the inherent weirdness that happens in an interview, and attempts to answer the question of why people actually agree to answer questions when they are posed by journalists. He interviewed several fascinating people for the essay, including Ira Glass, the host of the radio program This American Life, and filmmaker Errol Morris, who directed several masterful documentaries including one about Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who led America into the Vietnam War.
The key ingredient that we can pull into our discussion about Tortorella’s media tactics is a part of the essay that deals with the musical artist currently known (and formerly known as) Prince. Klosterman details a weird character quirk of the musicians, where he would only allow himself to be interviewed by a person so long as they had no tape recorder and no notebook in order to get his quotes verbatim. Klosterman initially describes it as weird, but comes around to it and views it as genius, because not being able to accurately quote Prince makes the writer do the job of portraying their subject, rather than letting the quotes do that for themselves.
Both the Prince part of the story and the “why do people consent to be interviewed” have easy bearing in this Tortorella saga. For starters, maybe Torts simply realizes that being interviewed is an act that’s hard to justify, and he simply doesn’t feel like going along with it. The media can cry about it all they like, but the fact of the matter is that while Tortorella does have to comply with the obligation to hold press conferences, he doesn’t have to give them anything useful. He could just as easily step up to the podium and give a dissertation on the different types of Pokemon, and there is very little the league could do about it.
In fact, the media should be thanking him for making their jobs a little bit more interesting. The amount of creativity it takes to regurgitate quotes from a person and let the bites tell the narrative is somewhere around James Frey levels (he wrote a book purported to be a memoir that turned out to be fake, embarrassing himself and, more importantly, Oprah Winfrey). On the other hand, being forced to analyze a game based on one’s own observations without the help of a coach diagramming his motives in each moment takes a bit of skill, and most writers are capable of that, and should be happy that they are being forced to use this tactic.
The parallel between that and the Prince part of Klosterman’s essay is that neither the musician nor the hockey coach are willing to play their part in the way that is expected, and neither is willing to consent to interviews in traditional style. It is highly likely that this is the first time that the singer of Purple Rain and a Stanley Cup winning coach have ever been compared, but it is apt in this case.
John Tortorella is a master manipulator of the situations he finds himself in. He can be humorous at times, abrasive and unhelpful in others, but above all else, he is always in control of the situation, and guys with their microphones in front of him can’t help the feeling that he is the ventriloquist and they have strings coming out of their backs.
Instead of viewing it as being led around the nose, it’s high time that media members covering the New York Rangers view this as a golden opportunity to put their opinions out there of how exactly the Blue Shirts are doing what they are doing. If they were to do that, not only would they get a freedom that a lot of media members crave, but they may just end up having fun doing it. If that happens, then perhaps they would feel emboldened to ask more incisive questions, to push back against Tortorella’s antics, and ultimately, to make their coverage as colorful as the personalities that have been invoked throughout this column.
Now THAT would be a great thing for hockey fans to behold.