PHILADELPHIA — Too bad HBO’s “24/7” cameras were packed up. New York Rangers coach John Tortorella had one final Winter Classic sound bite in the aftermath of his critical postgame comments following an otherwise ideal showcase game:
Tortorella told reporters at the team’s practice facility Wednesday that he was sorry for calling the officiating in the game “disgusting.”
“I tainted the Winter Classic with my mouth and I shouldn’t have,” Tortorella said. “So I apologize to everyone involved.”
Tortorella said he was being sarcastic for comments made after New York’s 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday came down to a penalty shot with 20 seconds left.
“They called a penalty shot which I still don’t understand,” he said Monday. “I’m not sure if NBC got together with the refs to turn this into an overtime game. I thought the game was reffed horrible.
“I just thought tonight, in that third period, it was disgusting.”
Tortorella backtracked two days later, saying he called numerous league officials and team representatives to apologize. He could still be fined for the critical remarks that stole some of the spotlight away from an otherwise fantastic afternoon of hockey. Tortorella also suggested the officials made the call that let Flyers center Danny Briere take the potential game-tying shot because of a conspiracy between the NHL and its network partner, NBC.
“It was frustration on my part as far as the referees were concerned and how it was done at the end of the game. I want to get that straight,” Tortorella said. “Not for a second, no way, time, shape or form did I think anything like that goes on with our league. Or ever will.”
He planned to personally apologize to officials Dennis LaRue and Ian Walsh.
Imagine what he might have said had the Rangers lost.
Tortorella’s referee bashes were among the final words of a nearly monthlong celebration of the NHL’s annual Classic. With snow flurries, see-your-breath temperatures, and a game between two heated rivals decided by a penalty shot, the NHL, HBO and NBC got all the pieces together for a perfect story.
The league, however, must have wished for better ratings.
The Winter Classic, moved a day later off its traditional Jan. 1 faceoff, earned a 2.4 share and 3.74 million viewers in the overnight ratings. That’s down from the 4.5 million viewers who tuned in from last season’s primetime matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
League officials insist there are no plans to move the game from its 1 p.m. EST start time or the Jan. 1 date in the future.
With close to 47,000 fans at Citizens Bank Park, the Classic remained one of the hottest tickets in sports. And it’s still the coveted get — well, outside of a Stanley Cup finals appearance — for teams around the league.
Next season, the Winter Classic could be Motown bound. After playing as the visiting team in the 2009 Classic, league officials appear keen on getting the game to Michigan. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch also owns the Detroit Tigers, making downtown’s Comerica Park a prime spot for the outdoor game. Michigan Stadium is a possibility since the Big House can hold 100,000 fans.
“We have a few good arenas in the Detroit area,” Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg said. “It would be a pretty cool thing if they could pull that together.”
So far, Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have hosted the event, and the Sabres, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Capitals, Bruins, Rangers, Penguins (twice) and Flyers (twice) have played in it.
Wherever the locale, expect the Classic to remain the only open-air game.
“We are tightly controlling the number of outdoor games we have,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “There are a number of clubs who say, ‘I want this, and even if I’ve hosted it, I don’t want to wait 10 years to get it back. So let’s do more and more and more.’
“Other people say this has become a special event, because it’s special, it’s unique and that’s something that, over time, we’ll probably continue to wrestle with. But I don’t think we are going to change the format in the short term.”
The NHL has yet to select a Canadian team in the five-year history of the event. NBC has balked in the past at including Toronto or Vancouver or any team north of the border. As the event grows, at some point, the NHL will have to call on new teams for it.
How does Red Wings vs. Maple Leafs in 2013 sound?
“There were strong feelings as we were building this event, that their metrics were, driving the ratings,” NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins said. “That was important to them. Obviously that’s important to us, too. But I think the event’s beginning to grow. They’re buying into something that we’re building together which is a celebration of hockey. I think if we can figure out the right matchup, maybe it would work.”
The NHL would love to renew its relationship with HBO for another season of the all-access “24/7” show, which airs the finale Thursday night. Former Showtime executive Ken Hershman starts this month as the new president of HBO Sports. He could decide to keep the show, and possibly expand it from its four-week run, or move in a different direction. Teams have been gracious in their access the last two seasons, making it wildly popular around the NHL.
“The players loved it. It’s such a great experience,” Tortorella said. “I look at some of the family things that these players are going to be able to have on film with their family at such a young age when they grow up and to see this, it’s great stuff.
So I have no problem being involved in this. It’s a first-class outfit as far as how they went about their business.”