PHILADELPHIA – Flyers coach John Tortorella defended Russian defenseman Ivan Provorov’s decision to cite religious beliefs as his reason to boycott the team's pregame Pride celebration.
“Provy did nothing wrong,” Tortorella said Thursday. “Just because you don’t agree with his decision doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.”
Before a game Tuesday night against the Anaheim Ducks, the 26-year-old Provorov sat out warmups, during which the Flyers wore Pride-themed jerseys and used sticks wrapped in rainbow tape.
Provorov is Russian Orthodox, and said after the game that he respected “ everybody’s choices.”
“My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion. That’s all I’m going to say,” he said, declining to answer follow-up questions.
Tortorella said had “very healthy” conversations with Provorov, general manager Chuck Fletcher and select players days ahead of the game. Provorov’s decision was not a surprise to the organization.
The first-year Flyers coach also said he never considered benching Provorov.
“Why would I bench him? Because of a decision he’s making on his beliefs and his religion?” Tortorella said. “It turned out to be a great night for Pride night.”
The Flyers, led by players James van Riemsdyk and Scott Laughton, have been staunch supporters of the LGBTQ community and launched a program in support of LGBTQ youth in the greater Philadelphia area. The Flyers also hosted a pregame skate for local LGBTQ youth, and Laughton and van Riemsdyk met after the game with about 50 people from the community.
“I think ultimately I'd like to look at the positives from the night,” van Riemsdyk said Thursday. “We were able to host a few different groups and meet with them after the game. I think that's where I'd like to keep the focus on, about the good things that happened. Ultimately, when you play a team sport, and there's lots of different people from different backgrounds, there's different causes that people support.”
Tortorella dismissed criticisms that Provorov’s actions “embarrassed the organization,” saying, “I don’t look it at like that all.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday he refused to let a few outliers, such as Provorov, undermine the league's overall commitment to inclusion.
“I think everybody knows what the league stands for in terms of our values, what the Flyers stand for in terms of their values, but in the final analysis, individual players are going to make decisions and follow their beliefs,” Bettman said before the Buffalo Sabres game. "Having said that, when you look at all of our players and the commitments that they’ve made to social causes and to making our game welcoming and inclusive, let’s focus on the 700 that embrace it and not one or two that may have some issues for their own personal reasons.”
Tortorella has coached five NHL teams and drew comparisons to his own controversy in 2016 in Columbus, when he threatened to bench any player that protested or took a knee during the national anthem. His comments came in the wake of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit or kneel during the anthem because he said the country “oppresses Black people and people of color.”
Tortorella has since said, and reiterated Thursday, he was wrong.
“I learned a lot through that experience,” Tortorella said. “My feelings toward any kind of protest to the flag during the anthem, it disgusts me, to this day. It disgusts me. It shouldn’t be done. Those are my feelings. I can’t push those feelings on to someone else. So I was wrong in saying that back then. I didn’t realize I was.
"But as I went through it all, who am I to push my feelings on to someone else. Same situation here.”
The Russian Orthodox Church, like other major Eastern Orthodox branches, doesn’t perform or recognize same-sex marriages. Its leader, Patriarch Kirill, has been supportive of moves by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government to implement anti-LGBTQ legislation.
The NHL also champions the You Can Play Project, which aims to ensure equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. The NHL has never had an openly gay active player. You Can Play co-founder Brian Kitts said in a statement that “religion and support for fans and teammates aren’t mutually exclusive.”
The NHL said that clubs “decide whom to celebrate, when and how” and that players "are free to decide which initiatives to support, and we continue to encourage their voices and perspectives on social and cultural issues.”
Tortorella said Provorov knew “he was going to have some blow back.”
“Provy’s not out there banging a drum against Pride night,” he said. “He felt strongly with his beliefs and he stayed with it.”
The Flyers have only 19 wins and lost 4-1 to Chicago on Thursday night.
Tortorella insisted the lingering affects of Pride night would not splinter the locker room.
“Not for a second,” Tortorella said. “The meeting at the end of the game, the 15, 20 minutes we spent together was very healthy. Really good process in a very important situation. To me, it bonds the team going through something like that. I’m not concerned about speculation of a team splitting up. Not a chance.”
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.
AP NHL: www.apnews.com/hub/NHL and www.twitter.com/AP_Sports