COLUMBUS, OHIO — John Tortorella, the coach of Team USA for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, isn’t backing off on his comments that he’d bench any player who didn’t stand for the U.S. national anthem.
On Tuesday, Tortorella told ESPN: “If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game.” The coach seemed taken aback Wednesday by the reaction to his comment, but he did not backtrack on his stance.
“I’m not backing off,” Tortorella said after the team’s on-ice workout Wednesday.
“I’ll tell you right now. Try to understand me. I’m not criticizing anybody for stepping up and putting their thoughts out there about things. I’m the furthest thing away from being anything political. No chance I’m involved in that stuff,” Tortorella said.
But the Columbus Blue Jackets coach says he remains unequivocal in his belief that the flag and the anthem should be sacrosanct. Tortorella has a son who is deployed in Afghanistan for the third time as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces.
“Listen,” he told reporters. “We’re in a great country because we can express ourselves. And I am not against expressing yourselves. That’s what’s great about our country. We can do that. But when there are men and women that give their lives for their flag, for their anthem, have given their lives, continue to put themselves on the line with our services for our flag, for our anthem, families that have been disrupted, traumatic physical injuries, traumatic mental injuries for these people that give us the opportunity to do the things we want to do, there’s no chance an anthem and a flag should come into any type of situation where you’re trying to make a point.
“It is probably the most disrespectful thing you can do as a U.S. citizen is to bring that in. Because that’s our symbol. All for [expressing] yourself. That’s what’s so great. Everybody does. But no chance when it comes to the flag and the anthem. No chance.”
The issue of respecting the anthem has created a firestorm of debate and controversy after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to sit for the national anthem during one NFL preseason game and then kneel for another.
Tortorella, 58, said a number of the players on Team USA came to him after his comments were made public and supported his views on respecting the anthem and flag.
In a follow-up interview with ESPN’s Linda Cohn on Wednesday, Tortorella described what would happen if a player on one of his teams decided to boycott the national anthem.
“On this team here, this World Cup team, there wouldn’t even be a player that would think about doing that because I know the guys well enough. We’ve gone through it,” he said. “But if I was ever involved in a situation where someone is trying to make a point, and they have a perfect right to do that, but to disrespect our flag and anthem, as I said yesterday, they would not play.
“If that ever happened, there’s no question, it’s just not right. And it’s not black, white, blue, red. It has nothing to do with the politics of all of this. It’s just not right. This is our country. Our people are fighting for our country, our flag and our anthem. That shouldn’t come into this equation at all. There are other ways of doing things.”
Earlier Wednesday, a member of the U.S. Army addressed the team but neither Tortorella nor the members of Team USA would describe the exchange.
“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.”
Canada World Cup coach Mike Babcock, who also coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs, was asked what would happen if one of his players sat during the national anthem in protest.
“This is what I know: I’m not going to have to make that decision because that’s not going to happen,” he said. “So I don’t have to worry about that reaction. At that time I guess I would decide what to do. One of the greatest things about this tournament is that most of us get to play for your country, and that’s a thrill of a lifetime in itself. And then when you get to do it on Canadian soil, that’s another thrill.
“For those of us who have the life we have, and the freedom we have, to repay respects to the people who went before us and made sure that happened; I mean, it’s pretty straightforward and common sense to me. But I don’t know why we’re talking about this.”