(Picture courtesy of me)
As all of Canucks Nation knows by now (except for the three of you who don’t, but even you three have to admit you suspected something was up) John Tortorella has been suspended 15 days by the NHL for his part in the Brawl for All that took place Saturday between the Flames and Canucks. This comes hot off of the heels of one of the worst stretches of the season for the Canucks in which they lost many games, but also got in many fights. So many fights…. *stares into the distance wistfully*..
A funny thing happened after the suspension to Torts was announced, though; the majority of fans weren’t complaining about the Canucks on ice play. Nobody was angry and bemoaning another Edler turnover. Nobody was wondering why Jason Garrison was making it his sole purpose in life to ruin the happiness of Canucks fans everywhere. No, for the most part people were defiantly supporting their coach. As only Roberto Luongo himself can put it….
— Strombone (@strombone1) January 20, 2014
A quick search of that hash tag on twitter reveals a ton of people jumping on board, declaring their support of the coach, despite all of the recent losses. Sure, some of that can be attributed to people parroting whatever hash tag Luongo puts out (If he put out #FreePoops as a hash tag, that would also be abnormally popular, I assure you) but for people who have been watching the Canucks fans reactions this year, you will notice it is just another sign of the Torts movement as people continue to get more and more on board Torts’ approach to the game.
In a town where a three game losing streak is akin to having your arm torn off by a rogue tractor, Canucks Nation is surprisingly positive in their support of Torts. Why you ask? Well I’m glad you asked, but the answer to that lies all the way back in 2011….
*Time travel montage*
Ah, 2011, a time when all was well in Canucks land. The Sedins were dominating like never before. Christian Ehrhoff had made Patrick White jokes en vogue again. Raffi Torres was decapitating people left and right (ok so some things haven’t changed). It was the best Canucks team of all time, statistically speaking, and let’s be honest, in every other category you could think of. There was just one problem: Every single person outside of the Vancouver fan base apparently hated that team.
It was really weird how united people got in their hatred of the Canucks. That team, by all accounts, was not a cheap shot team (Raffi Torres aside). They weren’t particularly mean spirited. Did they have some skaters with questionable diving skills on their resume? Of course! Lapierre, Burrows, and Kesler are not exactly innocent when it comes to diving, or yapping for that matter. The thing is, every team in the league either has, or has had, questionable players on its roster, and again, it is not like the Canucks were the worst team of all time in any bad category. They were a highly skilled team that would kill you on the power play and would simply out score you at will. Yet for some reason, as the 2011 playoffs wore on, more and more people simply despised Vancouver.
Was it simply a case of people reacting to the, sometimes annoyingly so, boisterous Canucks fan base? That probably played a part, but it still felt like there was something oddly personal about everyone outside of Vancouver actively hoping for Vancouver to fail in their Cup aspirations. As a result, not a day went by when people wouldn’t pile on the Canucks, and one of the biggest narratives running was about how the Canucks team was a bunch of "pussies". If it wasn’t the Sedin sisters using their purse to body check, it was Burrows being a coward, or Lapierre being a pansy, or the team equipment manager wearing white after Labor Day. Basically the 2011 Canucks team was painted as this sad sack of cowardly players that didn’t deserve to win a thing because they didn’t play hockey "the right way".
Things got so bad that at one point Brad Marchand was viewed as some sort of saint for punching Daniel Sedin in the face multiple times without a physical response from Daniel. Seriously, Daniel Sedin was vilified for this, and Brad Marchand of all people was celebrated. That’s like listening to your mother tell you how exciting it was when your ex-wife that cheated on you took you for all your money in divorce court. Marchand was playing "real" hockey and showing those pussy Canucks how hockey was meant to be played! YEAH!
*crushes beer can on head*
The entire mantra of the 2011 team could be summed up as the "Turn the Other Cheek" era, because that is what Vigneault preached that season. The Canucks would glow as they spoke about the "Lapierre rehab" project, where they brought in a lippy Lapierre and within 5 days of his personality re-assignment therapy, he emerged as a shutdown fourth line center with impeccable table manners. Vigneault’s vision for the Canucks was to not retaliate and to make sure to not get involved with any rough stuff. AV wanted his players to ignore the after whistle affairs and simply dominate the other team on the powerplay and get the win.
"Make them pay on the powerplay!" was a war cry Vigneault would use often, in between sucking on his lozenges. This "Turn the Other Cheek" movement reached its zenith when Sami Salo made the Sharks cry for mercy with two powerplay goals in 16 seconds in game four of the Western Finals. It was at its nadir when the Canucks power play absolutely disappeared against the Bruins in the Finals as the Bruins physically dominated the Canucks en route to winning the Cup.
Canucks Nation emerged from the 2011 Finals saddened by losing to a team that used brawn to beat their skill. They were frustrated that a team with so much skill as that 2011 team was being shit on by seemingly everyone outside of the Vancouver market for “not playing tough”. The last two years of Vigneault the "Canucks are pussies" narrative continued until it went out with a whimper when AV was finally let go in the 2013 off-season.
Enter John Tortorella.
Tortorella is known for being a fiery coach, and if it can be said that teams will often reflect the personality of their coaches, this theory gains even more merit when looking at Torts led teams. Under Torts the Canucks have become viewed as a much tougher team. Whether it is because Tom Sestito leads the league in penalty minutes, whether it’s because the Canucks now block a ton of shots (blocking shots = manly), or whether it’s because Torts himself will often scream behind the bench (Vigneault was known for laughing behind the bench or sucking his lozenges, the disparity between the two probably couldn’t get any greater), the Canucks are now viewed quite differently.
This of course is highlighted by the Torts suspension for attempting to charge into the Flames dressing room to yell at Bob Hartley for trying to goon it up against "his boys". Let’s compare the Torts approach to the AV approach for a second:
John Tortorella charges into the opposing locker room to yell at the coach to defend his players.
Alain Vigneault laughs at the memory of Matt Cooke screwing up a two on one.
John Tortorella yells to the press about people calling the Sedins soft.
Alain Vigneault giggles uncontrollably when someone asks him if Wellwood is "playing like a man possessed."
John Tortorella will frankly tell the media that Zack Kassian is a project player that needs a lot of work.
Alain Vigneault is most likely unaware who Zack Kassian is. He most ilkely giggled at some point.
Again, you could not draw up better polar opposites in coaches than these two.
Now, Torts’ popularity could simply be a case of him being a rebound coach after a long relationship with AV. If you look at all of AV’s "faults", Torts is the opposite, so he looks even better in comparison. For all we know if Torts had been here for 9 years and AV was the one to take over, people would be lauding AV for his much calmer approach to hockey, and complimenting his laid back style and nice track suits.
Regardless of why people in Vancouver are so open to Torts style, it is exacerbated by the optics of it all. This is a fan base that had its team being made fun of for being too soft for many many years. Fast forward four years, and now the team is being jeered for being "too dirty". It’s almost like this Canucks team can do no right in the eyes of many.
As a result of all of this, Torts is now becoming a central figure in Canucks Nation for his sometimes abbrasive style. If you realize that people will hate you no matter what, you kind of want to feel defiant to all of that. If people are going to hate you, part of you wants to give them a reason to hate you.
If people are going to make fun of your team, sometimes there is nothing better than seeing a coach stand up for the team and its players, giving a metaphorical "**** you" to people who aren’t a fan of the team. It’s not the fights themselves that make you cheer, it’s watching team mates stand up for other team mates that brings a smile to many faces. Sports is based on very primal emotions, so it’s easy to get swept away in the comraderie of players "having each others backs."
That is why, in my humblest opinion, the #FreeTorts ideology is taking off. That is why people are supporting this scrappy team and not complaining as much. Sure, people are still discussing the failures of the team (I am sure someone on Canucks Army as we speak is writing an article about how fighting adds nothing statistically to the team) but those failures have finally made their way onto the front door of Mike Gillis. Now it is Gillis who is being viewed as the guy who needs to fix the team, and not the coach.
This is why Torts is gaining popularity in Vancouver. This team is a shell of its 2011 glory, and many people are starting to realize that. So if the team is going to have to claw and scrape their way into the playoffs, they might as well play tough and stop backing down from confrontation. It’s therapeutic in a sense for the fan base because they might as well see what happens when they play tougher, since they lost with their most skilled team of all time.
For a fan base that had to watch Brad Marchand being celebrated for punching Daniel in the face, there is something very satisfying watching Bieksa stand in to fight on Kellen Lain’s behalf, or for Torts to run down the hallways screaming for blood.
Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to rally behind Torts, full of passion and fighting on the teams behalf, then it is to rally behind Vigneault, who came across more like an aloof step-father, one whom you’re not quite sure if he’ll invite you back over to Christmas next year. If the Canucks are going to lose this year, they are going to lose united as a team, which is better than going out with a whimper in a first round sweep for the third straight year.
In closing, #FreeTorts.