COLUMBUS, OHIO – John Tortorella stood at the podium today and stood behind his strong comments on the “Star-Spangled Banner,” one line that drummed up a blizzard of smartphone notifications when he awoke this morning.
“If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game,” Team USA’s head coach told ESPN’s Linda Cohn Tuesday in Columbus.
Those who wanted Tortorella’s opinion on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s sitting out the U.S. anthem in last week’s pre-season NFL game got their wish.
Before we get into Tortorella’s pride in the Red, White and Blue—which he flashes like Cory Schneider’s pads—it is necessary to understand two things.
First: Why Kaepernick sat, as the athlete’s silent, defiant message has been somewhat lost by his method. It’s easier to brush one man unpatriotic than it is to tackle the deep-rooted problem of racial hatred.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick told NFL Media. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Second, this is really a moot point. Tortorella won’t be benching anybody because his boys will be standing tall and proud; their grasp of the World Cup as a platform to represent their flag, Tortorella says, played into their very selection. The American hockey players have voluntarily agreed to represent their country and speak daily about their pride in wearing home colours.
“He’s got a right to believe whatever he wants,” Seth Jones, a black American defenceman who skates for Team North America and Tortorella’s Blue Jackets, told Hockey Central at Noon. “You’re not going to see anything from us, obviously, with Torts. I have no problem with that.”
Tweeted Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown: “Wouldn’t benching a black man for taking a stance only further prove Kap’s point of oppression? But hey.”
A number of U.S. players approached Tortorella this morning to voice their support of his comments.
As Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said in Ottawa: “I don’t know why we’re talking about this.”
Yet and still, it was the hottest topic of conversation after another snap-tempo practice Wednesday, relegating Joe Pavelski’s anointment as Captain America to sidebar status.
“I don’t think it was anything. Everyone knows the situation right now. There’s so much respect for that flag and that anthem, it’s just coming out,” Pavelski said of Tortorella’s quote. “We’re really here to play hockey now, to represent the country and USA. We want to do our best there, so it’s about doing it the right way.”
Tortorella explained he’s all for freedom of expression. That’s what makes America great. Then he slapped a giant asterisk on that notion.
“But when there are men and women who give their lives for their flag, for their anthem, who continue to put themselves on the line for our flag, for our anthem, families that have been disrupted, traumatic physical injuries, traumatic mental injuries for these people that give us the opportunity to do things we want to do, there is no chance an anthem and a flag should come into any type of situation where you’re trying to make a point,” Tortorella said.
“It is probably the most disrespectful thing you can do as a U.S. citizen is bring that in. That’s our symbol.”
Tortorella elaborated, hitting the podium to drill his point.
“Understand: I’m not criticizing anybody for stepping up and putting their thoughts out there about things. I’m the furthest thing away from being anything political,” he said.
“This is your anthem. This is your flag. That shouldn’t come into play for a second. Not what these people do.”
One of those people is Tortorella’s 26-year-old son, Dominick (“Nick” for short), a member of the elite U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment who is currently stationed abroad.
Tortorella declined to discuss his son today, but told the Jackets’ website this in November: “As parents, we couldn’t be prouder – not just of Nick, but of all the men and women who do this…. Are we nervous? Sure we are. It’s a natural feeling. We pray, we hope, and that’s all we can do. We can’t control anything.”
The coach told the local paper that an Army Ranger will be on the American bench Friday during its pre-tournament game versus Canada, and he arranged for “an Army representative” to address the club this morning.
Tortorella said the guest speaker was “outstanding” but gave no further details on the message. (“I’m not talking about what happens in our locker room,” Coach said, “especially in that type of situation.”) The players, too, kept relatively mum, but the impact of the visit was palpable.
“It always means the world. There’s mutual respect, but what they do is so much more important than what we do,” Pavelski said, noting that an Army speaker addressed the club at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games as well.
“Getting to meet these guys and getting to understand what they go through on a daily basis, it’s really not comparable. They love to compete and be in the action. You just get the goosebumps when they’re talking and relaying their message, so it’s pretty cool to have them come in. He did a tremendous job.”
Nick’s service, Tortorella told the Columbus Dispatch last weekend, has changed his language. He now dodges words like war and battle when discussing hockey.
Sportsnet play-by-play man Paul Romanuk, who will be calling Friday’s match at Nationwide Arena—a rink that blasts a goal cannon when the home team scores—spoke to us about sports/war metaphors.
“Warrior—I never use the term,” Romanuk said. “It’s disrespectful to people in the military who actually are warriors, people who literally put their life on the line. Athletes can be tough, rugged, tireless, unselfish and so on, but even after the toughest game, everyone gets paid and everyone goes home in one piece.”
Hockey is entertainment, Tortorella says. Outside Nationwide—the centre of that entertainment, built near former battle grounds of the American Revolution—three people have approached this reporter asking for money. Each one opened his pitch saying he is a war veteran.
“This gentleman who spoke with us this morning is doing the real stuff—life and death. We just want to give to our country in our little way,” Tortorella said.
“Quite honestly, we’re entertainers. What this man talked about in our locker room, what he does casts a huge shadow over us as far as what we’re doing.”
And what we’re saying to ESPN.