The Bearded Caps Fan in the White T-Shirt
Throughout the game, several people seated immediately behind the visitors' bench took advantage of the looseness of the glass panels and the unusually wide gaps between the panels to assault the Rangers with some of the most obscene language imaginable. Because of the way the glass is installed, the patron sitting behind Coach Tortorella (the gray-haired, bearded man in the white T-Shirt) could literally scream into the coach's ear.
And thus, did one longtime Caps fan earn a permanent spot in the official record of this first-round series. I finally got him on the phone today, after his hair and clothing had been included in Rangers GM Glen Sather's "Dear Gary" letter, after his face had been shown repeatedly both during Versus's game broadcast and during post-game national highlight shows, and after he had helped prompt the NHL to increase security for Game 7 tomorrow night.
The fan's name is Ron, he's 57, and he lives in Nevada, of all places. He grew up in P.G., was a season ticket holder at the Cap Centre for more than a decade before leaving the area in the late '80s, and was attending his first Caps game in D.C. since then, with front-row tickets he bought online. And by the end, according to his account, he had been doused with water by John Tortorella and had responded by throwing a half-empty cup of beer at the coach, leading to Tortorella's flung water bottle and stick-brandishing adventures.
"I have never been involved in any of that kind of stuff at a sporting event in my entire life," Ron told me. "I'm sad that that's happened. I feel bad about the woman who got hit with the bottle. I hope she's ok. That kind of stuff just shouldn't happen. This'll pass. And hockey is hockey, and rowdy fans are rowdy fans, and things happen at the games. It's just part of the deal."
(Ron spoke with me on condition that I not use his last name; he sent me a photo to verify that he was the fan in question, and an account from another fan in the vicinity confirms much of this story.)
His out-of-townness helps clear up one of the mysteries: why this extremely passionate fan wasn't wearing a speck of red. Ron, who was in D.C. with his wife and stepson on a business trip, had forgotten about the Rock the Red thing; he bought his son a gray Caps hat at the game, which was the only team regalia they wore.
He said a trio of younger Caps fans sitting a few seats away from his family began directing a "merciless" and profanity-filled stream of taunts at the Rangers bench early in the game. These fans, Ron guessed, were the inspiration behind the "egregious fan misconduct" referenced in Sather's letter. As the letter claimed, Ron said these fans indeed earned a reprimand from a female security supervisor (after which their language, at least, improved), but that he himself remained largely out of the fray until the incident. At that point, he and a security guard had been discussing the minimal offensive output the Rangers had mustered, and Ron extended the conversation to Tortorella.
"I leaned in to the little crack [in the glass], and I didn't yell and scream, I just said it very calmly," Ron told me. "I leaned into the crack and I said, 'Nice job coach, your guys put up 15 shots and your [slang term for cats] couldn't even put in a goal.' And then he just went crazy."
From his days in the Cap Centre, Ron said he was accustomed to coaches spritzing rowdy fans with water bottles, and when Tortorella turned, that's what he anticipated. But he said Tortorella crossed a line by soaking him with water.
"If it had been just a little squirt I would have just laughed it off, but he just went crazy and darn near emptied that bottle on me," Ron said. "After he emptied that bottle on me I just threw that beer. Well, it was half a beer....And it just went crazy from there."
According to Ron's account, Tortorella rose up to throw the bottle at him. Ron ducked, and the bottle hit a female fan seated behind him. Tortorella grabbed the stick and the two men stared at each other, with Ron not saying much besides "You want me, I'm right here," and things of that ilk.
"It was just not a good night for him, he was just really frustrated, and apparently decided to take it out on me," Ron said. "Perhaps I shouldn't have thrown the beer, but if he had just given me a quick squirt with the bottle, it wouldn't have been any big issue. I would laughed said, 'That's the way it was in the old days,' and moved on. But when he drenched me, that deserved some sort of retaliation, I think, and he certainly shouldn't have been able to throw that bottle....
"I said one thing, but it was apparently the one thing that just broke the camel's back. The taunting is a bit a part of the game. I didn't yell, I didn't scream, I didn't cuss, I wasn't belligerent. He should have just shrugged it off."
Sather's letter also said that Rangers personnel "were spit on by one or more 'fans' as they yelled through the gaps in the glass," and Ron said Tortorella had specifically accused him of spitting on the coach shortly before the major confrontation. This charge, Ron ardently denied, and said he didn't think it was possible for any other fan to have spat at Tortorella, since he and his family were directly behind the coach.
"I would never do a [stupid] thing like that, certainly not with my wife and kid there," Ron said. "There was a security guard one foot away from me; he would have seen me, no question about it. But he somehow in his mind believed I had spit on him. He went to security and complained, and the guard said 'I've been sitting right here, there's no way this guy did that.' I swear to you I did not spit on him."
Which pretty much completed Ron's story. He went back to Nevada the next morning, and will watch Game 7 on the television. He didn't specifically hear the three young Caps fans tossing homophobic insults at Marc Staal and Dan Girardi of the kind suggested in Sather's letter, but he said that would have fit into their generally merciless arsenal. He said he thought Verizon Center staffers handled all the incidents appropriately, and that Tortorella was reacting to his frustration with the game, and with the three young and vocal fans.
He said the half-beer he drank (pre-throw) was the only alcohol he had consumed all day, that he had yet to read the letter in which he was referenced, and that he thought Tortorella deserved a longer suspension.
"He's been in the NHL in one capacity or another for 30 years," Ron said. "He has seen it all, he could have just shrugged it off and laughed and moved on. I'm sure he's seen worse. This, to me, was not an incident that lended itself to being squirted with half a bottle of water, and throwing bottles, and raising sticks and doing all that kind of stuff. Certainly, my comment should not have deserved that."
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