Avery returns as Tortorella serves ban

Updated: April 26, 2009, 7:59 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Sean Avery was back in the New York Rangers' lineup Sunday and John Tortorella was not behind the bench for Game 6 of their first-round playoff series with the Washington Capitals.

Assistant GM and interim assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld took over head coaching duties for Sunday's game, with the Rangers needing a win to eliminate the Caps, after Tortorella was suspended one game by the NHL on Saturday night because he threw a water bottle at a fan in Game 5.

"He obviously feels bad," Schoenfeld said at a pregame news conference Sunday. "He knows that he presented a distraction that the team can do without. But I think it should be said that the passion, the fire and the leadership that John Tortorella has brought to the team, took a team that was dead in the water when he arrived. Without the work under Tortorella this incident would not have happened because we wouldn't have made the playoffs. And that's a fact.

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"When you're a fiery guy, there is that fine line, whether you're a player, whether you're a coach, or any line of work," added Schoenfeld. "But I believe in my heart that without that fire, without the passion, without the direction he placed for the team, the team would not have made the playoffs this year. His hurt is that he created a distraction for the players. He still believes they will get the job done. And I'll say it again, they would not even be in this situation if not for John Tortorella."

Tortorella met with Schoenfeld on Sunday morning at Madison Square Garden but as per league rules had to leave the dressing room by noon ET. He was allowed to remain in the building for the game but could not have any contact whatsoever with the team. Schoenfeld confirmed Avery would play Sunday and that it was Tortorella's decision. Avery was scratched for Game 5 after picking up six minor penalties in Games 3 and 4.

Hartford Wolfpack head coach Ken Gernander and assistant J.J. Daigneault were to join Schoenfeld on the bench Sunday as his assistants. Hartford was knocked out of the AHL playoffs Saturday night.

Tortorella did not address the players before he left, Schoenfeld said.

"No, and that's John," Schoenfeld said. "He doesn't want to muddy the water."

As assistant GM, Schoenfeld doubles as Tortorella's boss. But he said he was not disappointed in him.

"No, you know, really no. And that's an honest answer," he said. "I come right back to the fact that this team was dead in the water before he arrived."

At 6:33 of the third period, Tortorella got into a verbal confrontation with a fan behind the bench. A video replay showed the coach heaving a green water bottle into the crowd. Tortorella then grabbed forward Aaron Voros' stick and held it high, waving it in the fan's direction.

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Schoenfeld shed more light on the incident.

"Well I tell ya, I know the heart of the guy and I know the thing that triggered him," he said. "It wasn't any sling they threw at him; and there were many. It's what he [the fan] said about one of his players. And you guys, it's easy to say you got to be in control, you got to keep in check, you got to turn the other way, there are rules; but there's a certain part of your being when you're a coach, and it's just like being a parent, and there's certain things you'll put up with when people slander your kids and there's a certain line that people cross. And that's what happened with John.

"You can say what you want to Torts, I know the man. Call him whatever you want. He'll tell you what to do with your horse but he's OK with that. But don't get down on the people he cares about. He'll fight for them. He will fight for them. And that's what he did."

Still, the league took a different view in handing down a harsh punishment Saturday night.

"We do not take this action lightly," league disciplinarian Colin Campbell said in a statement. "It is the result of an entire day of investigation and evaluation that included the retrieval and review of videotape of the incident and discussions with Mr. Tortorella, other Rangers' bench personnel and a number of other people, including the security personnel at the Verizon Center.

"That investigation revealed that Mr. Tortorella squirted a fan with water before Mr. Tortorella was doused with a beverage."

"While it is a difficult decision to suspend a coach at this point in a playoff series, it has been made clear to all of our players, coaches and other bench personnel that the National Hockey League cannot -- and will not -- tolerate any physical contact with fans," Colin Campbell said in his statement.

The Rangers released a statement Saturday night indicating their displeasure with the league's decision.

"We disagree with the suspension and will have no further comment."

The Rangers also released a letter Sunday that general manager Glen Sather sent to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Saturday night in response to the suspension.

The letter requests Bettman investigate the incident further "in light of Washington's gross negligence in ensuring the safety of the personnel on the Rangers' bench, including Coach Tortorella, in the face of the Rangers' repeated requests for intervention against egregious fan misconduct during Game 5."

Further, it says, "Neither the NHL nor either team has had the opportunity to conduct a full investigation or to interview all witnesses but the television coverage and the statements made by Rangers bench personnel make clear that Washington utterly failed in its security obligations to the Rangers, not to mention its own fans."

Bettman declined to comment when ESPN.com e-mailed him late Saturday night before the letter's release.

The letter also asks for improved security for a potential Game 7 in Washington -- a matchup that will happen after the Capitals won 5-3 on Sunday in New York with Schoenfeld filling in for Tortorella.

"We've already implemented extra security measures, and we have for Game 7 and we don't anticipate any problems," NHL spokesman Frank Brown said.

"Well, the suspension has been levied by the league and we don't want to comment any further on that," Schoenfeld said Sunday. "Once a decision is made we live with it and move on."

Tortorella was not made available to the media Sunday before the game nor was he going to talk after the game, a Rangers spokesman said.

Capitals season ticket-holder Claudette Chandonia told The Washington Post the bottle Tortorella threw hit her in the head.

"He was losing and he was frustrated, I guess," Chandonia said, according to the report. "I couldn't believe it. I looked up, and he was throwing the water bottle -- and then it hit me right here, right in the head, and it bounced off me."

Fans in the seats around Chandonia confirmed the bottle throwing and said Tortorella also squirted water through two panes of glass before throwing the bottle, according to the report.

"Good job by our fans. Our fans are one more player for us. They do what they have to do for us," Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said Saturday morning at the team's practice. "They scream and they're loud. Maybe it was too much to [throw] beer or water or whatever. But sometimes that happens. And maybe that's going to happen tomorrow against us, too. You never know."

During his postgame news conference, the coach was asked what happened between him and the spectator.

"Ask me a question about the game. That has nothing to do with today," Tortorella replied.

Asked whether he threw a bottle, Tortorella said: "Ask me a question about the game, please."

At that point, a Rangers employee said the news conference would end if there were another question on that topic.

Verizon Center facilities president Gary Handleman said no fans were ejected, and the guard closest to the incident said no fans threw anything into the bench, according to the Post.

"Nothing was that unusual," said Alex Boyle of Baltimore, who sat in the same row as Chandonia, according to the report. "Obviously, some people were heckling. But no one was banging on the glass. The usher was right there, and when people were banging on the glass earlier in the game, he said, 'You can't do that.'

"And then I looked up, and he was shaking up a bottle, and he threw it."

Rangers players wouldn't discuss their fiery coach's faceoff with the fan in detail.

"When I looked over, Torts was turned and facing the crowd," Marc Staal said. "He might have gotten squirted or something. I'm not really sure."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer