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In defense of John Tortorella’s media misbehavior

Greg Wyshynski
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I've attended New York Rangers Coach John Tortorella's playoff press conferences, and they're about as comfortable as a root canal performed during a proctological exam.

The majority of his answers — when there are answers — are clichéd and measured. Information is never that forthcoming. It's like watching the media defuse a time bomb: You're either going to cut the wrong wire or the buzzer in his mind is going to go off. Either way, the thing's getting blown up.

His time with the media has been discourteous in the past, but it's become downright farcical in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Perhaps it was the $30,000 fine for sarcasm following the Winter Classic that cemented this behavior. Perhaps it's just Tortorella's coping mechanism for postgame stress. Whatever the case, his press conferences have turned into exercises in journalistic sadism.

His terse "keep it in the room" dismissal of questions after Game 2 against the New Jersey Devils appears to have been the tipping point for the reporters covering the series; the suggestion of a boycott of future press conferences having been floated.

This ignores the notions that (a) fans don't care if Tortorella is short with the media and (b) any form of protest is the Pavlovian response he's looking for, because Tortorella seems genuinely aroused by the media's frustration and (c) there has been more digital ink spilled over Tortorella's word count from Game 2 than Marian Gaborik's ice time, and that's his objective.

Writes Steve Politi of the Star Ledger:

Tortorella got a few YouTube laughs with his routine at news conferences early in the playoffs, but now the reviews are all about the same.

The act is tired, and especially so on a night when it isn't unreasonable for the fans to expect some answers. You can say he doesn't owe the media a thing, but the paying customers can't ask the question themselves. And it's a fair one: Why was your team so flat for most of this game?

Writes Mat Yoder of Awful Announcing:

For a while, John Tortorella's press conferences were cute.  He would come out and offer only a few words, or go off about somebody's cell phone, or generally act like a colossal jerk.  It was a novelty act, it was something different, it was rather amusing.  Torts even got the DJ Steve Porter remix treatment!  However, in these playoffs, with day after day after day of Tortorella's antics in these press conferences, he now looks like nothing more than a ginormous d-bag.  In total, last night's presser after the Rangers 3-2 Game 2 loss to the Devils lasted about a minute while Torts wanted to keep everything in the room...

Writes Michael McCarthy of USA Today:

Look, there's no doubt the Stanley Cup winning coach has a big heart in his personal life. And we know nobody likes the press: many TV viewers probably enjoy watching Torts make his uncomfortable questioners squirm. And Tortorella's not the first and certainly won't be the last coach to act this way. The difference with him is he's like this every day. The media have a job to do too. Critics say Tortorella is acting childish and unprofessional. And possibly putting the NHL, which needs and deserves more media coverage, in a bad light.

Jesus, really? One coach acting like a petulant brat puts the NHL in a bad light? Call me when he issues a bounty …

And he's not like this every day. He's like this after losses. And here he is after a win, a triple-OT one, no less:

The venerable Eric Duhatschek of the Globe & Mail wondered on Twitter after Game 2:

"Question to my PHWA colleagues: Anyone consider a boycott of JTortorella press conferences? Just walk out en masse when he goes to podium."

Hey, guy who refuses to answer questions: What if there are no questions to answer, eh buddy?! Oh, you'll just get up and leave and the media will look foolish for making themselves the story? Er … uh …

And that's the uncomfortable thing about the Tortorella press conferences becoming a story after each game: It's a media-driven narrative.

It's akin to political reporters being outraged over a candidate dodging interviews — yes, the public (and hockey's paying customers) deserve answers to questions and information about the topics of the day, but the only reason it's a story is because they're being delivered on the coach and/or candidate's schedule. Mitt Romney will eventually have to answer tough questions. John Tortorella has a 12:30 p.m. ET conference call on Thursday.

Dave Shoalts of the Globe & Mail has it partly right: Part of the gig in being a reporter is dealing with jerks. But Bruce Arthur filled in the blank earlier this month: Tortorella isn't really a jerk, he's just overly cautious and believes information comes with a cost in the playoffs:

"I'm being sincere, too," replied Tortorella. "I'm not gonna give you much information. Some of you guys sit here and tell me I'm curt or whatever. I'm not gonna have a staring contest. If you don't ask me questions, I'll just leave. So that's the way it is. I'm sorry, I'm not a guy that wants to converse about everything during the playoffs. I'm not."

Part of it is secrecy; part of it is a natural combativeness, and a singular focus, and a laudable lack of interest in self-promotion. Still, even in hockey's obfuscatory world of upper- and lower-body injuries, Tortorella comes across as arrogant, as a bully, as a jerk. This is the face, for whatever reason, he chooses to show to the world.

The only thing that bothered me about Tortorella's press conference after Game 2 was that Gaborik, who was benched in the third period, literally said "ask [Tortorella]" why it happened. When the coach won't deliver that information, that leaves Rangers fans wondering why one of their premiere offensive players wasn't available during a 1-goal game. Tortorella owes them an explanation.

Otherwise, he did what he does. When the Rangers were playing the Capitals — in this postseason and previous ones — I'd skip Tortorella's pressers unless there was a compelling reason to attend (like the water bottle throwing incident). I'd rather hang around in the dressing room and talk to players that are more forthcoming with information and less obsessed with cuckolding the media with their position of power. A few extra seconds with an introspective voice like Ryan Callahan or Henrik Lundqvist was worth missing Big Top Johnny's Media Circus.

So don't boycott. Don't ask off-topic questions in protest. Don't use funny accents and hand puppets (please, just pick one or the other). Approach Torts Time with the same apathy as he approaches it.

I know as a PHWA member, I'm supposed to treat Tortorella's act with outrage.

It's the obligation of any head coach to be a spokesperson for his team and his franchise, and 29 other men in Tortorella's position were emotionally stable enough to handle this responsibility — even Dale Hunter, who was socially inept. So it's frustrating that Tortorella's the exception.

But he's made himself the exception (a) because he loves this and (b) because it takes the attention away from his players and doesn't give the media ammo with which to fire on them. It's an embarrassing path to take, it makes him look clownish, but what are we to do? Ask the NHL for a mandatory word count?

Face it: If you're Steve Serby of the NY Post -- or his editors -- and you dedicate your column space to a blow-by-blow of Tortorella's press conference, can you really complain about Tortorella betraying the public trust? What's more frustrating for a Rangers fan: Tortorella's evasive four minutes or a NY Post columnist's obsessive 800 words?

When Chris Pronger was this calculated with the media in 2010, he was lauded as a sinister genius. But he gave good copy, while Tortorella is clamming up, so he's decried as a 'D-bag'.

Meanwhile, we come back to the same overriding question: Do fans care if John Tortorella gives dismissive one-words answers in press conferences?

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