John Tortorella did not back down from his comments threatening to bench any player who refused to stand for the national anthem. If anything, he doubled down.
The Blue Jackets and Team USA coach addressed the controversy after practice Wednesday at Nationwide Arena, where the national squad is conducting training camp for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey. He made it clear he wasn’t softening his stance on the issue a day after speaking with ESPN’s Linda Cohn on the matter.
The anthem and flag have been hot-button sports topics since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner before the last two exhibition games. Kaepernick said he wanted to raise awareness of violence and oppression against people of color. USA women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe is among several other athletes who have joined the anthem protest.
Tortorella said he respects people’s right to take a stand — his career is filled with brash remarks and actions that have sometimes landed him in trouble — but believes involving American emblems goes too far.
“There is no chance an anthem and a flag should come into any type of situation where you are trying to make a point,” Tortorella said Wednesday. “It’s probably the most disrespectful thing you can do as a U.S. citizen is to bring that in because that’s our symbol. (I’m) all for express yourself. That’s what is so great. Everybody does. But no chance when it comes to the flag an anthem. No chance.”
Tortorella said last week that his 26-year-old son, Nick, is a member of the Army Rangers, an elite special ops raid force. The coach refused further comment on his son during the news conference but he has strong feelings about the military.
The coach had an “Army representative” speak to the team before Wednesday’s practice. He also told the Dispatch recently an Army Ranger would be “on the bench” with the team Friday night as it plays Canada in an exhibition game here.
“We are playing hockey,” Tortorella said. “Other people are doing real stuff. This gentleman who spoke to us this morning is doing the real stuff. Life and death. We just want to give to our country in our own little way. Quite honestly, we are entertainers. What this man talked about in our locker room and what he does casts a huge shadow over us as far as what we’re doing . . . It certainly is in my mind, right from the get go, about your country.”
The fiery coach would not share any details of the soldier’s address. Several players also were tight-lipped on the message delivered.
Tortorella acknowledged he’s heard from several people about his initial comments to ESPN and has spoken to some Team USA players. He said the players were supportive.
“I’m not backing off, I’ll tell you that right now,” Tortorella said. “And try to understand me, I’m not criticizing anybody for stepping up and putting their thoughts out there about things. And I’m the furthest thing away from being anything political. No chance (I’m) getting involved in that stuff.
“This is your anthem, this is your flag. That shouldn’t come into play for a second. It’s not what these (military) people do.”
Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky, a Team USA member, said he “whole-heartedly” agreed with his coach’s remarks, but thinks the players need to focus on the tournament, which opens Sept. 17.
Team USA captain Joe Pavelski, who plays for the San Jose Sharks, was asked for his thoughts on Kaepernick’s protest.
“It’s a situation where you wish maybe it was handled a little differently,” Pavelski said. “For what it is, everyone has their own opinion and they are entitled to that. You just try to do it the right way and move on.”
Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, representing Team North America in the tournament for players ages 23 and younger, thought his coach’s comments were “fair.” In an interview with Sportsnet’s FAN 590 in Toronto, the highest-drafted African-American in league history, said: “I have no problem. You’re not going to see anything from any of us with Torts, so I have no problem with that.”
Tortorella has come under fire in some circles for his remarks. ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith said the 58-year old coach should be stripped of his title as Team USA coach.
Tortorella, however, remains resolute in his views.
“I don’t know what’s being written out there and I don’t care,” he said. “I really don’t care. I really don’t. I feel very strongly of being able to say what you want to say in your way about (being) upset with things. You’re dead on, you have your right to do that. But to bring that flag and anthem into it and drag that down, no way. So I feel strongly both ways.”
Tom Reed via bluejacketsxtra.dispatch.com | Photo: si.com
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