TORONTO — Only three players of color are competing in the World Cup of Hockey. Team USA coach John Tortorella's stance on the anthem protests across professional sports has only made hockey look more exclusionary, an insulated world as unyielding as the ice it's played on.
Before the tournament began, Tortorella made it clear that his players would be punished for following Colin Kaepernick's lead. "If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game," Tortorella told ESPN's Linda Cohn.
Tortorella was given the chance to walk back his comments. He declined the opportunity.
"It is probably the most disrespectful thing you can do as a U.S. citizen is to bring that in," he said. "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 anthem. No chance."
By Tortorella's measure, protest is fine so long as it meets his own particular standards of what is or isn't an acceptable form of expression.
As a coach, Tortorella has an authority over his players, and ice time is his principal means to wield it. Workplaces routinely set limits that the U.S. government never should.
As the father of a son serving his third tour in Afghanistan — Nick Tortorella is part of the U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment — he is understandably sensitive to the sacrifices made by the men and women serving in the armed forces and their families.
As an American, however, Tortorella should remember that some rules aren't his to make or break. He represents his country and its ideals to the world just as much as his players do. He also represents hockey.
Wouldn't benching a black man for taking a stance only further prove Kap's point of oppression? But hey ��☕️ https://t.co/p6aUjXYlq4
– Jt brownov (@JTBrown23) September 7, 2016
Brown followed his tweet with a thoughtful statement to the Tampa Bay Times.
"I could have been quiet and just kept my opinion to myself," it read in part, "but I don't want young minorities who love the game of hockey to think that what's going on in America today is going unnoticed by the hockey community.
"I love America and thank the military for protecting our freedoms, as well as law enforcement for protecting and serving our communities, but that doesn't mean I can't acknowledge that there is still racism today. I am glad my tweet provoked a discussion, because we need to start having a conversation about racism if we want to work towards a better America."
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Brown is not part of Team USA; Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien is the only player of color on the American roster. Asked about Tortorella's comments before the tournament began, Byfuglien essentially said players remained free to protest: "You still do it. But you take your chances."
He was a healthy scratch for Saturday's opening game against Team Europe.
Tortorella said his choice was purely about numbers, a function of having a roster of 23 players and being able to dress only 20. Sources within Team USA were emphatic that the decision to sit Byfuglien had nothing to do with the anthem debate or the possibility that he might disobey his coach's demand.
Byfuglien said he wasn't given a reason for not making the cut. "No," he said. "Just, 'You're out.'"
No matter the calculus, Byfuglien's absence has meant the World Cup has seen only two nonwhite players so far out of the 184 playing in incredibly diverse Toronto.
One is Seth Jones, who plays defense for Team North America and Tortorella's Blue Jackets in the NHL. Jones said he had "no problem" with his coach's comments. During the American anthem before Team North America's opener against Finland on Sunday and again on Monday against Russia, Jones stood with his head bowed, tapping his stick after in salute.
John Tortorella, the United States World Cup coach, isn't backing off his comments that if a player sits for the national anthem, he'll sit for the game.
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The other is French winger Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. He suited up for Team Europe, which doesn't have an anthem to stand for.
That leaves Byfuglien, and all indications are he will dress for Team USA during Tuesday's all-important game against Canada. Asked what playing might mean to him, he was even quieter than he usually is. "It's everything," he said.
Asked whether he had plans to protest during the anthem, he shook his head. "Nothing. Nothing," he said. "No, I'm not going to do anything."
America, like hockey, works best when it occupies that great gulf between everything and nothing, between love it or leave it. It can be a messy and complicated place to be, full of compromise and the fog of debate. Extremes are attractive because they are easier. Rules don't just tell us how to behave, but they also tell us how others will.
If Dustin Byfuglien stands for the anthem on Tuesday night, that's his right. If he sits, or kneels, or raises his fist, or skates out without his stick or with his jersey inside-out, that should be his right, too.
In a world and a game that can seem defined by its polarity, that's the most American, and admirable, of absolutes.