There are few things better than the cut to the stands to show a rookie’s friends and family, going nuts or crying their eyes out for the kid. He’s achieved his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL! And his loved ones are there for it! It’s always so good. Only the truly coalhearted would not want this to happen. And perhaps only Dallas Stars head coach Rick Bowness would actively go out of his way to prevent it from happening for Riley Tufte on Thursday. Grinch-ass.
Tufte, a 23-year-old winger drafted in 2016, got his call-up last week. He played limited fourth-line minutes for the banged-up Stars, but NHL minutes are NHL minutes, and the Stars won both of his games. And Tufte happens to have been born and raised just outside the Twin Cities, where—what a gift!—the Stars were set to play the Wild on Thursday night. Tufte was jazzed for the chance to skate in front of everyone he ever knew, and local reporters in both cities covered the feel-good story in the run-up to the game, requesting him for interviews. He obliged, with an unprompted story he just had to share.
“I went to Bennett’s Chophouse last night with my family, my parents,” Tufte said. “We were driving and we took a little detour. We drove by the Children’s Hospital there. I remember when I was 11 years old, sitting in the hospital bed, getting diagnosed with diabetes there. I think two days later, when I was in the hospital, somebody walked in, I can’t remember who it was, it was a pack of Wild tickets to a suite.
“I remember sitting in the stands and thinking how cool it was. I was a big hockey player, I was missing my out-of-town tournament in Brainerd, Minn. I got to go to the Wild game. I thought that was super cool. That’s just a little flashback and now here I am today, always dreaming in that hospital bed of playing in the National Hockey League when I got diagnosed with diabetes. Super cool. I just wanted to bring that up.”
Super cool! “It’s pretty crazy the amount of people that reached out, saying they’re coming to the game tonight,” Tufte told reporters. His agent noted that Tufte spent all his call-up money on buying tickets for his loved ones, and a Wild player had to cover the rest.
You might see a couple of Tufte jerseys in the stands,” Tufte said. “I know there will be a couple of high school jerseys. I think my brother is wearing my Duluth jersey. Definitely going to have some fans tonight. My son’s wearing a Dallas jersey with ‘Daddy’ on the back and ‘27.’ Super cool moment for my family and friends and just happy to be here.”
Again: Super cool!
And then the Stars made Tufte a healthy scratch for the game.
After the game, Bowness gave some muddled answers as to why Tufte didn’t get to play in front of his cheering section, and why he had been allowed to spend days thinking he was going to. First Bowness claimed that he found out he was unexpectedly getting some players back from injury. “I get here at 4 o’clock, they’re telling me, these guys are in now. Changed everything. This morning, Riley was playing. I can’t do anything about that.”
I don’t really buy a head coach saying he “can’t do anything about” his literal lineup. I also don’t know that Joel Kiviranta, who slotted in for Tufte on the fourth line, is so much of an upgrade that Bowness had no choice but to start him instead. It was, as Bowness admitted, just a cold, tactical decision.
“It’s a big ask for him to go into a big game like today,” Bowness said. “Kivi was out a couple of games, we wanted to get some speed and some energy from him. Riley hasn’t played very much, he’s only played four minutes one night and seven minutes the last. That’s a tough ask to put him in those situations.”
Kiviranta recorded one shot on goal and one hit in 10:23 of ice time.
I get that Bowness’s job is to win hockey games, and everyone down to Tufte would tell you the same. But there’s also something to treating players like human beings, with some basic consideration for their emotions. (Not for nothing, but Mike Babcock, who is now shorthand for nightmare coach, wielded healthy scratches as weapons. Jeff Blashill also pulled something similar on Dennis Cholowski.) Some part of winning has to involve having a contented locker room where players respect the coach, and even if Tufte is too unestablished to do anything about it, the Stars’ veterans can’t be very happy to see a young teammate treated like this.
And if a coach is going to treat players like cogs because winning is that all matters—that coach damn well better win. The Stars lost in Minnesota, 7-2.