Watching Game Five of the first-round series between New York and Washington, I was struck by the irony of Rangers assistant Jim Schoenfeld wrapping his arms around John Tortorella and slowly moving him away from the boiling point at which the incendiary head coach was certain to be burned.
Tortorella had squirted water into a heckling crowd behind his bench and, according to reports, threw a water bottle that struck a woman who may not have been involved in the disturbance. He then grabbed a stick and seemed intent on, at the very least, menacing the fans when Schoenfeld smothered him like a blanket and got him refocused on the hockey matters at hand.
I go back a long way with Jim Schoenfeld. I watched him break into the NHL as a fiery defenseman for the Buffalo Sabres in the early 1970s and later covered him as both a player and coach. I was in Quebec City when he threw a water bottle from behind the bench in the direction of referee Terry Gregson (it missed) and was standing there, pen in hand, when Schoenfeld said his only regret was "that it wasn't a brick."
I was also there the night in New Jersey when Schoenfeld waited in the corridor for referee Don Koharski to come off the ice after his Devils had suffered a brutal loss to Boston in the 1988 Eastern Conference Final. It was the night of his alleged bumping of Koharski and unforgettable "Have another donut, you fat pig" line that two decades later still sticks to both men like peanut crumbs on a Krispy Kreme. But here's the difference between Schoenfeld and the equally fiery Tortorella: Schoenfeld grew up.
As a player, Schoenfeld was one of the most intense players I've ever known and he had a temper to match. But if he cost his team a goal or game, he said so -- no excuses, no ducking out the back door. He would stand at his dressing stall and answer all questions, even ones that started with "What happened on the play where you...?"
That's a tough thing to do on any given night, tougher still if it's the worst night of your professional life.
Schoenfeld knew he was wrong to sling the bottle at Gregson, and after he calmed down a bit, he said so. He regretted his actions and remarks and he apologized. He knew almost immediately that he was wrong with Koharski, even if the ref did call a horrible game that night. (Their off-ice melee set off one of the most bizarre episodes in the long history of bizarre NHL episodes: officials staged a strike the next night because Schoenfeld wasn't immediately suspended, and replacement refs worked the game while then-commissioner John Ziegler was mysteriously absent and unreachable.) Schoenfeld apologized to Koharski because it was the right thing to do. He knew he'd hurt and embarrassed the man and his family, and damaged his reputation. He now hates the donut quote and will take that regret to his grave. I know because more than a decade after the fact, Schoenfeld told me so. He couldn't just let the incident go unresolved.
I've also known Tortorella almost from the beginning of his career. He was an assistant coach in Buffalo to Rick Dudley and later John Muckler. It was with Muckler that he first got into trouble. The two were walking off the Memorial Auditorium ice after a loss to Tampa Bay in 1995 when a fan taunted Muckler with remarks about a poor power play. Muckler called the fan over to the railing and slapped him in the face, an action that got him suspended and fined $10,000. Tortorella was also suspended and fined for his involvement in the incident.
It didn't stop there. Tortorella later struck a fan while he was head coach of Buffalo's affiliate in Rochester, an action that got him suspended again. As I said, he's fiery and I respect that in a coach. He has a commitment to his profession, players and winning like few men I've met. That burning desire sometimes rubs people the wrong way. What you see is what you get -- and what you get is raw.
He's a man who believes in what he does and says. He also believes in what he he feels he shouldn't have to say. You don't win popularity contests with an approach like that, but you do win hockey games. And here's the problem with that: Tortorella got suspended for his Game Five actions and that hurt his team in Game Six. Just as importantly, though perhaps not to him, Tortorella hurt the game and the way it is perceived. His stubborn refusal to address that for days afterward did the same. His initial "none of your business" responses to questions about the water bottle incident was typical of him.
Tortorella's repeated lack of self control may soon mean the end of his career. He made a well-after-the-fact public apology today, but you still have to wonder if he fully understands that fans and employers have a right to know if they've invested their money in a man who can build not just a team, but character in his players. He'll be judged on whether he has the strength to stand up and answer for his actions. If he holds himself above the standards he sets for players like Sean Avery, standards designed to make hockey's most recognizable bad boy more responsible and accountable to his team, then the sum of what Tortorella preaches is not what he stands for, it's an act, a sham that is sure to be exposed on the ice as well as off.
That's the second irony in all of this. When Rangers GM Glenn Sather managed the Edmonton Oilers, he demanded public accountability from his coaches and players. He preached that if you couldn't stand up and give an explanation of yourself after a tough loss or bad outing, you'd never grow on the ice. He taught Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and all the Oilers greats how to be something more than hockey players. Ask any of them and they'll tell you Sather taught them how to be men, and that led to them being better players.
The reason Tortorella wasn't selected to head the U.S. Olympic Team was on display in Washington. Do you think for a moment that Team USA would take a chance on a coach who might self-destruct on the world stage? A coach who has been given chance after chance to change his ways and hasn't, at least until today, shown the least bit of interest in doing so?
Jim Schoenfeld has had a long, distinguished career in hockey because he learned there's a greater obligation to the game than just winning. There's a responsibility to stand up to the consequences of one's actions, and sometimes that includes accounting to the people who are hurt or embarrassed by them. It's not just a team that deserves that. Knowing Tortorella and the way he coaches, he undoubtedly did behind closed doors. He is both brutally honest and sincere, but the game outside deserves that same respect.
Jim Schoenfeld came to know that. It's why he moved to rein in Tortorella where years ago he might have actually encouraged him. You can't help but wonder if Tortorella will ever get to that same point. His actions in Washington were wrong and he knows it. Maybe today was the first step toward redemption.