Clarke MacArthur #16 of the Ottawa Senators upends goalie Eddie Lack #31 of the Vancouver Canucks while crashing the net during the third period in NHL action on March 02, 2014 during the 2014 Tim Hortons Heritage Classic at BC Place Stadium.
Photograph by: Rich Lam, Getty Images
VANCOUVER — John Tortorella said he gets it. I’m not so sure.
The Vancouver Canucks head coach said he gets what has gone on in this community with goaltenders the last few years. He gets the popularity Roberto Luongo has earned by handling it all -- the demotion to No. 2, the reincarnation, the contract, the Cory Schneider trade -- with rare aplomb.
He gets the angst it was certain to cause when he named NHL rookie Eddie Lack to make a third consecutive start after the Olympic break -- and not in just any hockey game, but in the Heritage Classic -- while the franchise goaltender sat in his touque on the end of the bench, opening and closing the door and trying to keep a neutral expression on his face for the TV closeups.
Tortorella turned an easy, no-fuss, no-muss choice that would never be second-guessed into an unnecessary kick in the private parts, an unpopular decision that had many in the crowd of 54,194 at B.C. Place Stadium booing Lack when his picture was flashed on the massive video board, and chanting “We want Lou!” when the Ottawa Senators’ winning goal went past Lack at 10:11 of the second period.
He said he didn’t hear the crowd.
He said he would make the same decision again.
He would take a starting goaltender, a 34-year-old, two-time Olympic gold medalist who is inextricably tied to this franchise for the forseeable future, and sit him out for three games after his return from Russia on the pretext that Eddie Lack was playing so well, he gave the Canucks the best chance to win.
He would take Roberto Luongo, who really wanted to play this indoor/outdoor specialty event -- a showcase, marquee occasion, surrounded by all the attendant pomp and nonsense the National Hockey League puts into these cash grabs -- and he would say, all over again: “No, Roberto, we like our chances better with Eddie.”
How does that play, do you think, in the dressing room, where Luongo is one of the two or three most important leaders, where his teammates knew how much he wanted to play?
John Tortorella says he gets that, too.
“I would like to think this is a veteran team, and this stuff here, I think you should be able to absorb as a veteran hockey club,” he said.
“This is part of the business. I have to make decisions, not on consensus, but on what I think is best for that team -- and Louie’s pissed. He’s not happy. He’s proud, and I get that. I like the guy. But this is part of the business.
“And I know this is a very sensitive thing here because of what happened last year, and I weighed that. But I have to make decisions, right now, on such short strokes, on what I think gives us the best chance to win. Eddie was playing lights-out. He has been very good all year long. He deserved to play this game.”
If only it were that simple.
What really happened Sunday, in the 4-2 loss to the Senators, was that he put both goalies in awkward positions; not no-win, precisely, but undeniably awkward.
Lack, Tortorella admitted, did not look himself either before or during the game, though he made some big saves.
But Eddie Lack cannot be the future of the franchise as long as Luongo is here, and that’s forever, apparently. So what is the upside now of dissing Luongo, in the stretch drive, for a club whose arc since the Stanley Cup final of 2011 has been a near-classic portrait of accelerating decline?
Tortorella was hired to halt that decline, to shock the team into a different gear. But the bounce hasn’t happened, and instead, we got the storming of the Calgary room, the suspension, the curious goaltending decision -- “curious” being a more polite way of saying “inane.” And results that are no better, and conceivably are a little worse, than might have been achieved with A. Vigneault and R. Bowness still running the bench.
The hope -- faint, admittedly -- was that there was some logical explanation we were all missing here.
That Luongo didn’t feel right yet, still bothered by jet lag, and like a certain journalist, was still falling asleep every day in the middle of the afternoon. Or that the Canucks’ sleep doctor had hooked him up to the K-Tel Super Sleep Deprivation Detector and determined that his biorhythms were all wrong for a 1 p.m. start five days after returning from Russia.
Or, alternatively, that this was some act of petty (yet, on a certain level, understandable) revenge on behalf of GM Mike Gillis or owner Francesco Aquilini for the comments Luongo made after the story emerged that Ryan Kesler wanted out of Vancouver.
“Whether he wants to go or stay, he’s not going anywhere,” Luongo said. “We all know how this script ends.”
It sounded bitter, and sarcastic, and heaven knows, if that’s what it was, Luongo ought to be entitled to at least one free shot without fear of retribution after two years of playing the good soldier while two coaches, a GM and an owner have batted his psyche around like a pinata.
Tortorella doesn’t see it that way.
“You guys make the call whether it was the right (choice), and you will, but I would make the same call (again),” Tortorella said.
Asked if he heard the crowd’s disenchanted reactions, the coach said he didn’t, but “that’s part of it. That’s part of being a pro, both for Louie and Eddie.”
Lack heard it.
“Yeah, I mean ... it’s their opinion. If they want to chant (for Lou), I’m OK with it. I just try to play the best I can out there,” said the tall Swede. “I know there’s a lot of talk around this game, I was just trying to focus on me and shut all that other part out. I thought I did a pretty good job of that, actually.”
Was he surprised to get the nod for this kind of showcase game? Maybe a little.
“I think it’s special to everybody. I get that. But I can’t make a decision where I don’t think I’m putting the best lineup out for that particular night because it’s special,” said Tortorella. “I know people are upset, I get that. But I can’t do it to make people happy. And I’m not going to.
“And I would do the same thing, and I think Louie is a pro enough to maybe even use it as motivation. However he wants to handle it, I think he’s going to handle it just fine.”
We’ll know soon enough.
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