Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bertuzzi's No Thug; Cheer For Him With Impunity

Todd Bertuzzi is not a dirty hockey player. Let's get that straight right now. He's a big guy who made a mistake and took too much liberty with an opponent, and in many instances, his actions wouldn't have caused the injuries that they did.

But Steve Moore, the Avalanche player that Bertuzzi mugged on the ice a couple of years ago, went down to the ice in an awkward fashion and was significantly injured. Not a proud moment for Bertuzzi. But also not one that was part of a trend, either.

Sometime this week, Bertuzzi will make his Red Wings debut, and you probably won't be able to detect them amongst all the cheers, but there are those who would chastise the Wings for bringing Bertuzzi to Detroit.

"He's a thug!"

"The Red Wings have lowered their standards!"

"I won't cheer for them as long as they have that hooligan Bertuzzi on the team!"

That's fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion -- no matter how misguided it might be.

Bertuzzi, when healthy, is one of the NHL's best big men -- and it has nothing to do with physical intimidation or fisticuffs. It's because he's able to combine soft, deft hands with a large, unmovable frame with such aplomb that few have been able to do it as well before him, and even fewer are doing it with him. Yet fewer will do it after him, most likely.

Not Bertuzzi's greatest moment, but not a trend, either

But he's not a thug. He's not a hooligan. He's not dirty. He's just a big man who let his temper get the best of him in an instant while playing a fast, mean game. And he paid his penance.

The angriness of ice hockey has gotten the best of good, clean players before.

I remember watching the Red Wings' Dan Maloney pummel the Maple Leafs' Brian Glennie, slamming his head into the ice at the end of a terribly one-sided fight. It was so bad that Ontario police had a bounty on Maloney's head for some time. But Maloney wasn't dirty, either.

The Red Wings' Dennis Polonich, no saint but no thug, was the victim of a horrific stick swinging incident, at the hands of Colorado's (Rockies, not Avs) Wilf Paiement, back in 1978. And while Polo never quite forgave Paiement, largely because of Wilf's feeble show of remorse, it really couldn't be said with accuracy that Paiement was a dirty player, frankly. But in a moment of bad decision-making fueled by anger, Paiement took his stick to Polonich with such brutality that it hospitalized him and practically disfigured him.

I am slightly amused by those protesting Bertuzzi's place on the Red Wings roster. I don't have any proof, but I wonder how many of them have cheered Bob Probert when Probie was menacing the NHL, even after his skills as a hockey player had eroded.

Detroit sports fans have long cheered the anti-hero, the social misfit.

They welcomed Denny McLain warmly after his half-season suspension for nifty things like carrying a handgun and dumping buckets of water on sportswriters. They chanted "News! News!", encouraging Pistons coach Herb Brown to insert Marvin Barnes into the game. But Barnes's nickname was "BAD News," and there was a reason. Kirk Gibson, as a young Tiger, was adored even as he was snarling at kid autograph seekers before games.

Why? Because the fans were more concerned about the performance during games, and not so much about behavior -- before or after the contests.

The beef with Bertuzzi is that his mugging of Moore is considered by some as part of his modus operandi. It isn't.

And most who will huff and puff about his being a Red Wing are hypocrites, plain and simple.

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