Once again, Columbus Blue Jackets Head Coach John Tortorella’s mouth has served as a diving board that’s plunged him into the deep waters of race.
The fiery coach was displeased with his team’s effort in a 2-1 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues Saturday night.
He called out his players for their performance but he also had a curious choice of words in describing Blues tough guy forward Ryan Reaves, who fought Blue Jackets forward Nick Foligno in the second period.
“I watched Nick Foligno fight that animal,” Tortorella told reporters after the game.
Tortorella may know hockey but he apparently doesn’t know that certain words when aimed toward certain people can have racial connotations.
Calling a black player like Reaves “that animal” didn’t sit well with several hockey fans, judging by the online reaction to Tortorella’s words.
It’s hard to determine what Tortorella’s intent was in calling Reaves an animal. Apparently no one at the post-game press conference asked the coach to elaborate on his comment.
Several words can be used to describe Reaves – enforcer, fighter, tough guy, pugilist, or the old-school hockey phrase “goon,” if you must. So the use of “animal” is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Tortorella knows that he needs to choose his words carefully. Just a few days ago, he employed verbal restraint before getting too salty before the cameras.
The use of the word “animal” conjures up some bad hockey memories for some. Val James, the NHL’s first U.S.-born black player, was often called an animal, a monkey, a gorilla, or some other primate during a professional career that spanned the 1970s and 80s.
James, who was one of the game’s most-feared fighters, once told me of the time that he was sitting in the penalty box during a minor league game when two people dangled a fishing line down to him with a toy monkey attached to it.
The taunt aimed at James was so appalling that the game’s referee – current U.S. Congressman Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania – threatened to end the game and call it a forfeit against the home team if the two tormentors weren’t ejected from the arena.
Philadelphia Flyers star forward Wayne Simmonds got the less-than-human treatment in 2011 when a so-called fan threw a banana toward him during a pre-season game in London, Ont. NHL broadcaster Kevin Weekes had a banana tossed at him in Montreal in 2002 when he played goal for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Tortorella stirred controversy at the World Cup of Hockey in September when he said he would bench any of his Team USA players if they followed San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest and not stand for the national anthem.
Kaepernick is protesting what he feels is the oppressive treatment of blacks in the United States.
Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown, who wasn’t on the U.S. World Cup of Hockey squad, criticized Tortorella’s criticism in a tweet that said “Wouldn’t benching a black man for taking a stance only further prove Kap’s point of oppression?”
Brown told The Tampa Bay Times that Tortorella “sees the situation through his reality and I see it through mine, as a black athlete in the NHL.”