VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- An offhand and off-color remark by Sharks captain Joe Thornton turned into an online firestorm Thursday.
Only one media outlet in the room actually reported what Thornton had to say, but once the Vancouver Province put the full statement on its hockey blog, it was widely distributed through Twitter and appeared on other sites such as Deadspin.
That sparked a debate among journalists and hockey fans about the appropriate use of locker room comments. In response, the Sharks chose to defend their player while criticizing the newspaper that used the quote.
The incident began when Thornton took exception to media questions being directed to Patrick Marleau about criticism of the flashy nature of rookie Tomas Hertl's fourth goal Tuesday night against the New York Rangers and the celebration that followed.
While the cameras and microphones were still directed at Marleau, Thornton spoke up and suggested his response would have gone a lot further than Hertl's did, giving a funny but coarse example.
A similar incident occurred 24 hours earlier in San Jose when Thornton was the one being asked about criticism of Hertl's goal and linemate Brent Burns jumped in.
"Four goals! He's a 19-year-old kid," Burns said, adding an expletive or two. "I'd be naked."
Thornton's comment went in that same direction but was more graphic.
"I don't think it would be a surprise to anyone in the industry that 'locker room talk' exists," Sharks director of media relations Scott Emmert said in a statement. "Professional reporters understand that concept and respect it."
He called use of the quote "a pathetic attempt to generate some page hits and controversy by reporting an off-the-cuff and off-the-record comment made by someone who wasn't even being interviewed at the time."
After Thursday's game, Thornton fielded a question from a Vancouver reporter who asked if he was annoyed his line went public.
"No, that's OK," Thornton said, half-smiling. "Thanks for asking."
The former high-scoring center told reporters that he was "upset" by the timing of Hertl's move and that Sharks coach Todd McLellan did the right thing by benching the 19-year-old rookie for the last eight minutes of the game.
"I'm glad the coach did that, because in this league it'll bite you if you're not sharp," Oates said. "Don't disrespect the league. I'm sure it was a rookie mistake."
McLellan, however, said the decision to not play Hertl had nothing to do with concern that the Rangers might try to retaliate.
And while he acknowledged someone may need to mention something to Hertl about goal celebrating at some point, the Sharks coach was unyielding in his defense of his player's scoring technique.
"I can't believe there would be any negative reaction," McLellan said. "If you refer back to 2005, the lockout year, our league, our players, our management were looking for ways to find goal scoring. Our fans want it.
"Now," he continued, "a young 19-year-old comes into the league and scores four goals, can't speak the language, doesn't really understand where he is right now, and we're going to criticize him for that?"