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In A Business Built On Fans, How Much Access Is Too Much?

Mike Watts, WFUV Sports

Would an "upper body injury" by any other name smell as sweet?

At first, I was offended when I heard John Tortorella refused to answer basic questions from the media about injuries and in-game pep talks. He is paid plenty of money, money earned off the backs of the fans that attend games and spend a ridiculous sum for “NHL Center Ice”, to answer these questions.  How could a hockey coach ignore those fans that bleed blue when they want a little more access to the team they pay so much to see?  In hindsight, my offense was shortsighted.

Back in September, Lane Kiffin, the head football coach at USC, ended a press conference after an injury question.  But his abrupt exit from a post-practice press conference comes with slightly different circumstances.  First, the NCAA has different regulations for dissemination of injury information.  He said at the time, “I know it is not exactly the best thing for you, but we are trying to protect our team too.”  Coach Tortorella gave a similar response to media about Rick Nash’s injury, saying “none of your business.”

John Tortorella was quick to respond on Friday night when a reporter asked what he told his troops after calling for time in the first period of the Rangers 3-2 loss to Ottawa. “None of your business,” the often outspoken coach quipped for the second time in a week.  Later on his coach’s show on MSG, Tortorella said “my number one responsibility is the hockey team.  No one else.  Not you. Not the public. No one else except those players,” continuing “we demand a lot out of them.  I think it’s a two-way street, and I think we need to protect them in certain situations.” 

The coach brought up an age-old question – to whom is a coach responsible? 

The Rangers coach can be a tough guy to play for at times.  He expects complete effort on a night in, night out basis.  His system asks players to grind and play hardnosed hockey for 82 games; it is truly a one that reflects the personality of the coach.   While some players may wilt under the pressure he places on individual effort, stars and grinders alike continue to sing his praises.  The man wins everywhere he goes for a reason, and if you can believe it, that reason relates more closely to hiding injuries and pushing around the media than you’d think.

The winningest American-born coach in NHL history’s success should be attributed to being a good coach with good talent, but some of that credit must also go to how he vigorously protects his players.   Make no mistake – he’ll publically put a player in the dog house as he did with forward Brian Boyle on Friday night.  But with that criticism comes expectations that when the team struggles, as they did out of the gate against the Senators, Torts won’t air dirty laundry in the middle of Penn Station.  What happened in that timeout is between 25 people – the players and coaches. 

What I’m trying to say is, John Tortorella’s biggest responsibility doesn’t lie with ownership or fans.   His primary duty is to the 20 players he sends to battle every night. Saying anything else ignores the sacred bond between player and coach, and creates a paradox of accountability that can never produce a winner.

John Tortorella owes plenty to the fans.  I remember “NHL 24/7” highlighting some of the work he does outside of the arena, bringing to light the version of “Torts” you won’t find in front of a microphone in the Madison Square Garden press room.  Let that be his way of giving back.  Above all, though, he owes fans a contender for the Stanley Cup.  Tortorella pays his debt to the fans regularly, but not at the expense of his players.

This isn’t to say fans don’t deserve access.  With ticket prices often in the three-digit range at MSG on the resale market, I’d want a tour of the arena and a free hot dog upon showing up.  Fans are the reason the game works, and they deserve more than their fair share of access.

I would say, however, there is high likelihood that there were words I can’t print on this website that John Tortorella used to implore his players to wake up and get their heads in the game against Ottawa.  What would the coach gain in the locker room if he went to the press and gave his speech again? Would it sound good if he tore into his defensemen for not playing well below the hashmarks or the forward lines that failed to forecheck, especially on a back-to-back in a lockout-shortened season? 

What if he told reporters that one of his players had a concussion? What happens when that player is targeted on a check from behind in a rivalry game when things become chippy on the ice?  How does Tortorella feel when one of his players has a season-ending injury because he felt compelled to tell the league exactly where a player’s most glaring physical weaknesses are?   Some might argue that film of injuries occurring in games is readily available throughout the league.  Well if that’s the case, then let the other teams make their assumptions.

At the end of the day, if a team feels their leader betrayed them in the press, are they really going to push on when they’re being ridden late in the third period?  And if the leader is perceived as a turncoat, can the divisiveness that follows ever be repaired?  At some point, fans asking for more access are counterproductive to the team’s ultimate goals. 

Then again, I don’t think fans would complain if a little less access netted them Lord Stanley’s Cup in June.

Mike Watts is a Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. You can follow him on twitter, @MikeWattsOnAir