Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bertuzzi Won’t Ever Shake Steve Moore, But That Isn’t Stopping Him on the Ice

There are some who follow the National Hockey League who will never get over Todd Bertuzzi. To those folks, he’s not a hockey player, he’s an incident.

Bertuzzi, to the ones with long memories and an inability to forgive, shouldn’t even be playing in the NHL. He should be out doing community service, or anything else that doesn’t earn him a paycheck with Gary Bettman’s signature on it.

For the rest of his NHL career, like it or not, Todd Bertuzzi will be fused to a player named Steve Moore, the same way Lee Harvey Oswald is fused to John F. Kennedy.

Prior to Steve Moore—he himself also an incident first, a person second—Bertuzzi was one of the league’s bad guys. He wore the black hat, appearing in NHL cities as a wrecking ball of a hockey player who all but pitched a tent in front of opposing goalies.

Bertuzzi could score, and he could bully. He was the kid bigger than the others who’d take your lunch money, in broad daylight. Opposing players disliked him because they couldn’t stop him. Opposing fans disliked him because their team couldn’t stop him.

Bertuzzi pumped in goals from within three feet of the net better than anyone in the NHL. He was as immovable from the crease as someone nicknamed “Tiny” from the buffet line.

The numbers were impressive. Coming into his own in the late-1990s with the Vancouver Canucks, Bertuzzi scored 25 goals in the 1999-2000 season, with 126 penalty minutes. In 2001-02 those numbers skyrocketed to 46 goals and 144 penalty minutes.

Bertuzzi was a 6’3”, 235 pound net crasher who scored seemingly at will. He was hockey’s Shaquille O’Neal.

When the Canucks played the Red Wings in the first round of the 2002 playoffs, Bertuzzi and Wings defenseman Chris Chelios had a well-publicized grudge match nightly. The smaller Chelios stood his ice, refusing to be intimidated by the NHL’s preeminent power forward.

The battles between Bertuzzi and Chelios made for great theater, in a series won by the Red Wings in six games after losing the first two in Detroit.

Then along came Steve Moore, and the answer to the following question was a shocking and resounding YES.

Can Todd Bertuzzi be despised even worse than he already is?

On March 8, 2004, Bertuzzi was on the ice against the Colorado Avalanche. He was out there to meter out justice on Moore, an Avs forward, in Gordie Howe fashion. That is, long after the initial transgression.

Moore, two Canucks-Avs meetings earlier, had badly injured Vancouver captain and leading scorer Markus Naslund with a vicious check to the head. No penalty was called, and Canucks players vowed revenge.

It was Howe who invented the delayed reaction in hockey.

When Hall of Famer Stan Mikita was a young NHL player, the Chicago Blackhawks center caught Gordie good from behind. When Mikita skated back to the bench, expecting congratulations from his teammates, he was instead greeted with a warning.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” a Blackhawk player who should know, told Mikita.

This was in the days of Original Six hockey—with 14 games against the other five teams per season.

Several Detroit-Chicago games went by, and Howe didn’t so much as sniff Mikita. The young center thought his teammates’ words were just a bunch of hooey.

Mikita thought he had gotten away with a blindside hit on Gordie Howe.

What a foolish player Stan Mikita was in his youth.

Finally, Mikita’s comeuppance occurred, months after his hit on Howe. After making a pass, Mikita was waking up on the trainer’s table.

“Who was it?” Mikita wanted to know.

“Number nine,” was the answer.

Gordie had an elephant’s memory and his interest rate was higher than a loan shark’s.

But back to Bertuzzi and Moore.

Bertuzzi, his team trailing the Avs, 8-2 in the third period, lagged behind Moore through the neutral zone. Then, in an instant, it happened.

Bertuzzi jumped Moore, punching him in the back of the head and landing his massive body on Moore as the latter collapsed to the ice.

It all happened so fast, but when Bertuzzi got up, Moore didn’t.

Moore’s injuries from the Bertuzzi sneak attack read like those of an unlucky race car driver: three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a grade three concussion, vertebral ligament damage, stretching of the brachial plexus nerves, and facial cuts.

Todd Bertuzzi, in a thirst for revenge, ended Moore’s career, and started a legal firestorm.

First, Bertuzzi was charged with assault, and a hockey player charged with assault is like a squirrel charged with jaywalking.

Then the lawsuits started flying, which are still going on today. Commissioner Bettman is still trying to get Bertuzzi and Moore to settle out of court.

In March, 2008, Bertuzzi even sued his Vancouver coach at the time, Marc Crawford, by insisting that he was just acting on Crawford’s directive to hurt Moore.

Crawford, for his part, says the opposite; that he had ordered Bertuzzi to get off the ice before even touching Moore.

After Steve Moore, Bertuzzi was persona non grata in the eyes of many NHL observers, despite Bertuzzi’s tearful apology two days after the incident.

The league suspended Bertuzzi indefinitely after his attack on Moore. Then came the lockout that canceled the entire 2004-05 season, and Bertuzzi got shoved to the back pages.

In August, 2005, the league announced that it was taking Bertuzzi back, much to the consternation of many who follow hockey.

Bertuzzi lost about half a million dollars in salary from his suspension, plus endorsements.

Moore was 25 years old when his hockey career was ended by Bertuzzi’s momentary indiscretion.

Today, Bertuzzi is about to turn 36, is playing great two-way hockey for the Red Wings, and has been called an exemplary teammate and one who has bought into coach Mike Babcock’s call for more defensive-minded play.

He isn’t the player he once was. He doesn’t score 30 goals or more anymore, doesn’t steal anyone’s lunch money. Last year, playing in all 82 games for the Red Wings, Bertuzzi mustered just 80 penalty minutes, a little more than half of what he used to record, when he was terrorizing the league.

No, he isn’t the player he once was. He is, in many ways, better.

Even if you think he doesn’t belong.

No comments: