Twenty-three-year-old Riley Tufte got called up to the Dallas Stars’ roster last week to play for their fourth line. He saw a few minutes of playing time in victories against the Flyers and the Red Wings, but the big game for him was going to be his homecoming to face the Minnesota Wild in his home state, in the arena where he witnessed his first NHL game. It was a dream come true, and he repeatedly told the press how excited he was to come home and for his entire family — who he spent his entire call-up payment buying tickets for — to watch him on the ice.
Great story, right? Yeah, right until Rick Bowness, for no apparent reason, decided to scratch him. Apparently, he let Tufte know about the decision in the late afternoon, saying after the game that it would have been a “big ask for him to go into a big game like today.” Well, aside from coming off as incredibly condescending and dismissive, Bowness also chose to shirk any responsibility and claim that he had not been the one to make the decision after making some clearly fabricated excuses about speed and energy, which are, of course, two things famously always missing in 23-year-old rookies who got called up for the first time in their lives and are about to play in front of everyone they love in a stadium they grew up visiting. Right.
Just a warning: This is going to make you feel really, really bad. But the morning of the game, Tufte told reporters that he had dreamed of playing in the NHL as a kid diagnosed with diabetes, laid up in a hospital bed with a view of the Minnesota Wild arena outside his window.
“It’s pretty crazy the amount of people that reached out, saying they’re coming to the game tonight,” he said. Gah. The lineup decision and total lack of accountability from Bowness are just really, really not a good look, particularly after the Stars dropped the game 7-2. It feels unnecessarily cruel, especially after Tufte bought so many friends and family tickets for the game, with the help of his opponent and friend, Wild forward Nick Bjugstad. It’s hard to find the words that describe just how shitty this makes you feel and to find any reason aside from some sort of personal dislike that would have triggered this 11th-hour lineup switch.
This isn’t the first time a power-hungry NHL coach decided to bench a hometown player for no apparent reason. (Well, the cruelty seems to be the point.) In 2019, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock didn’t allow the former Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza to take the ice in his hometown against his former team in the Maple Leafs’ home opener that year. Spezza was a 17-year veteran, and Babcock said that he benched the center to “give him more time to get comfortable killing penalties.” Yeah, however much more comfortable you can get after 17 years in the league, I guess. Former Maple Leafs players took to the airwaves to condemn Babcock’s move, calling his rationale for benching Spezza “unacceptable.”
And this wasn’t even Babcock’s first go-round with disrespecting a veteran player. As the head coach of the Red Wings in 2011, he healthy scratched future Hall of Famer Mike Modano for their last regular season game when Modano was at 1,499 games. You have to have a certain amount of ambition to get these coaching jobs in the first place, sure, but to let that desire for power over other adults consume you to an extent that it becomes vengeful against players simply playing for a hometown crowd or getting to reach a milestone is probably a sign that this isn’t the business that you should be working in.
It’s not been a banner month for the NHL, to say the least, after a slap on the wrist to the Chicago Blackhawks for covering up an employee’s sexual assault of a player, and a new investigation into the behavior of the GM and president of the Anaheim Ducks, to name a few. Sports are about a lot more than what happens on the field — or in this case, the ice — and purposefully alienating players and fans is not going to help the team or the sport as a whole.
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