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World Cup of Hockey

John Tortorella stands ground on anthem

Team USA coach not against protests but calls involving flag 'disrespectful'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

COLUMBUS -- John Tortorella is not backing down from the comment he made to ESPN on Tuesday: "If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game."

Tortorella is coaching Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey 2016. To him, this about principle, and it's personal. He won't talk about it, but his son Nick is an Army Ranger serving overseas, and an Army representative spoke to Team USA Wednesday before the third practice of training camp.

To Tortorella it isn't whether San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have the right not to stand for the anthem in protest. It's whether they're right to do it.

To him, it isn't that Kaepernick and others don't have a point. It's whether they should make it this way.

He didn't say this, but there also is a difference when it comes to the World Cup: These players aren't playing for a club; they're representing their country, wearing red, white and blue, and "USA" on their chests.

"Our country, we're in a great country because we can express ourselves," Tortorella said. "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 who give us the opportunity to do the things we want to do, there is 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."

Tortorella obviously values free speech. He has been outspoken during career, often causing controversy and at times getting himself into trouble. This is another example.

By saying what he said to ESPN, and by saying it the way he said it, he hit a nerve that has already been rubbed raw across the country. He invited questions and criticism. How can he advocate free speech and threaten to bench a player who exercises it?

Free speech does not mean speech is free from consequences. That goes for Kaepernick and Tortorella.

But people have different backgrounds and perspectives, and context matters on all sides.

"Try to understand me: I'm not criticizing anybody for stepping up and putting their thoughts out there about things," Tortorella said. "I'm the furthest thing away from being anything political. No chance I'm being involved in that stuff. This is your anthem. This is your flag. That shouldn't come into play for a second. Not what these people do."

By "furthest thing from being political," Tortorella seemed to mean he's not getting involved in the issues being protested. He's speaking only about the method of the protests.

By "these people," Tortorella meant members of the military.

"I don't know what's being written out there," Tortorella said. "I really don't care. I don't. I feel very strongly of being able to say what you want to say in your way about you're upset about things. You're dead on. You have that right to do that. But to bring that flag and anthem into it and drag that down? No way. So I feel strongly both ways."

Tortorella said he had received support from many people, including some of his players.

Joe Pavelski, named captain of Team USA on Wednesday, also is captain of the San Jose Sharks, who play near the 49ers' home in Santa Clara, Calif.

Of Kaepernick, he said: "It's a situation, you just … you wish it was maybe handled a little bit differently. For what it is, everyone has their opinion and they're entitled to that. You just try to do it the right way and move on."

Of the World Cup, he said: "Everyone knows the situation right now. There's so much respect for that flag and that anthem, it's just coming out. I think it's an issue that. … It's just, we're really here to play hockey now and represent the country and USA and want to do our best there. It's just about doing it the right way."

To be fair, no one asked Pavelski what he considered "the right way," and he didn't elaborate.

"We're all excited to represent our country and our flag," Team USA goaltender Cory Schneider said. "Whatever somebody else wants to do is their business and their right. You take a tremendous amount of pride in representing your country. Our actions, or our results on the ice, are a reflection of the United States. We're going to have a lot of people pulling for us, rooting for us, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do well."

Team USA forward David Backes said: "As an athlete I've been blessed to have a platform to influence social change. But when my national anthem is playing, I'm standing up, saluting it, because there's men and women who have died, lost limbs and altered their course of life so I can have this freedom, and I need to respect that. This country is great and we're united and there's people that have sacrificed way more than I have."

Those were the themes when the Army representative spoke to Team USA on Wednesday, an event that was scheduled long before this controversy erupted. Members of the military watch teams representing the United States in international competition as an escape and as something to rally around, and there is no comparison between their jobs and athletes' jobs.

"This is kind of their way to get away from what they're doing," Team USA defenseman Ryan Suter said. "It lets their mind relax a little to watch us and cheer us on. That right there makes you feel pretty honored and pretty special to be that comfort, I guess, for those guys. … You don't realize it as much until you hear somebody who comes in and tells us."

Tortorella said: "We're playing hockey. Other people are doing the 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 little way, and quite honestly we're entertainers. What this man talked about in our locker room, what he does, casts a huge shadow over us in terms of what we're doing. It's our situation. It's what we do as citizens and U.S. people. So we want to give. It certainly is, in my mind, right from the get-go, about your country."

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