John Tortorella clearly can’t stand the Pittsburgh Penguins, and in that glorious feud, the gawking hockey audience counts as the real winners.
Perhaps the juiciest chapter in that hate-affair boiled over last night, as Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets were not happy about now-former CBJ defenseman Jack Johnson‘s comments about joining the Penguins. Torts & Co. were downright livid over Penguins GM Jim Rutherford piling on, too.
It’s all delicious, especially for those who want hockey banter to be about more than just canned quotes and cliches.
Penguins light the fire
In most cases, you need to read between the lines a bit with statements in hockey (see: how Lou Lamoriello subtly jabbed John Tavares about “individual success” in a press release). For instance, upon reflecting on his decision to join the Penguins, Jack Johnson may have slighted Columbus.
” … I’ve been really wanting to be a part of a winning culture and a place where the expectations to win are as high as they can be and have a chance to win,” Johnson said, via the Penguins website. “I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better opportunity here.”
Johnson’s comments feel run of the mill at first, honestly. It’s mainly if you’re, say, part of a hockey franchise that still hasn’t ever won a playoff series, that you might feel your blood start to boil.
But it was Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s comments about how Johnson was used late in his time with Columbus that really turned the knife deeper.
“I don’t think he had a bad year,” Rutherford said, via NHL.com’s Wes Crosby. “He was a healthy scratch at the end of last season. I know the reason why.”
Blue Jackets respond, with Torts losing it
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen provided the (relatively) calm response:
For what it’s worth, Johnson was largely ineffective for Columbus, and it remains bewildering that the Penguins weren’t just interested in JJ, but actually made a lengthy, substantial investment in a blueliner whose market value had to be questionable.
(Columbus couldn’t give him away at the trade deadline, after all.)
While Kekalainen seemed cool and collected, Tortorella did not take the same reserved approach, even by the fiery coach’s standards. He vented in a gloriously profanity-laced, get-the-popcorn way to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline (sub required) in what is absolutely a must-read. It’s almost overwhelming to try to keep up with all of his righteous anger.
- After explaining that the Blue Jackets “bent over backward” to try to help Johnson, including with his ugly, well-publicized financial troubles stemming from his family, Torts provided one of the many gems of the article. It’s efficient, too, as this specific quote blasts Rutherford as well.
” … And for him to backhand slap us like this is utter [expletive], and he should know better,” Tortorella told Portzline.
“No one wishes anything bad to happen to him and his family. We wish him the best. But for him to put it the way he put it today is [expletive]. And to have a general manager question our decision-making from three hours away, he must be a [expletive] magician.”
- Tortorella isn’t coy about how Columbus is working hard to raise its profile in the league, which is clearly what these angry responses are about.
Well, that and Torts’ undeniable disdain for the Penguins.
- Torts’ message for Rutherford and the Penguins, ultimately, is a more profane version of mind your own business.
“But you get an arrogant couple of guys, an arrogant guy … I don’t want to go to name-calling, cause I know Jimmy. He’s a good man. They’re both good people,” Tortorella said. “But what the [expletive] are they doing? Get on with your business! I hope (Johnson) plays his ass off for ’em, but stay the [expletive] out of our business when you don’t know what’s going on.”
As explosive as Tortorella’s comments are, he does have a point.
Rutherford’s take on there being some sort of seedier motivation for scratching Johnson – again, a defenseman with serious deficits in his game by both traditional and analytical standards – is pretty strange.
It’s also great that Tortorella used the word “arrogant” here, as it ties things together nicely with his history of dust-ups with the Pens.
An abridged history of Tortorella hating the Penguins
For my money, this is probably the most explosive chapter in this sometimes one-sided rivalry. (Seriously, take the time to read Portzline’s article. You won’t regret it.)
It’s getting to be quite the anthology, though.
Taking a shot at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin: Back when Tortorella was with the Rangers, Torts slammed both the Penguins for whining and the NHL for allegedly having a double standard in Pittsburgh’s favor. It was glorious, and a good way to remind people that press conferences can be gold because they come during moments of raw emotion:
Whining enough for the whole league: After being asked about a Brandon Dubinsky suspension in November 2015, Tortorella responded, “We’re not going to whine here … Pittsburgh whines enough for the whole league.”
Another shot at Penguins stars: 2015 was an eventful year in the rivalry. Tortorella slammed Malkin for what he believed to be embellishment after a December game.
Just flat out saying he doesn’t like the Penguins: In late December 2017, Tortorella admitted the obvious: he doesn’t like the Pens.
Russian Machine Never Breaks’ Ian Oland transcribed the good stuff:
“Quite honestly, I don’t like the team,” Torts said. “And I say that, very…not in a personal way, but it’s a team that we want to beat. I guess maybe I’m defining it’s a little bit of a rivalry. We respect the team. It’s a really good hockey team we’re playing against, but yeah, you gotta have to have a little bit of an edge when you play against them and I think that’s the way we have to play.”
Ah, Torts. You’ll note that he also said that he has “respect” for the Penguins, yet it’s fair to wonder if he’s trying to deploy it in the way that Ricky Bobby used “with all due respect.”
The above list covers many of Torts’ outbursts about the Penguins, but chances are there’ve been even more. Especially behind closed doors.
We should all be thankful that a good number of those comments were made on the record.
As is often the case with Tortorella, his latest comments combine kernels of truth with an almost cartoonish bluntness. For many fans who dislike the Penguins, it’s like he’s expressing their thoughts, with or without the profanity.
Torts himself wondered how Jack Johnson’s former teammates might react to facing him again, so just to note, the Penguins and Blue Jackets first meet in Pittsburgh on Nov. 24. Johnson’s return to Columbus won’t come for a while, however, as the Penguins don’t face the Blue Jackets on the road until Feb. 26.
Chances are, Johnson won’t get the kind of reception he received after word of his family/money troubles surfaced.