Reaction To Bertuzzi Incident Illustrates Divide In
By Bob Grove
the night of March 8, the National Hockey League already was troubled
by a roster full of problems. Ongoing was a contentious debate over
rules changes suggested by general managers trying to revive the game's
creativity in an era of robotic allegiance to defensive systems; several
teams continued a tenuous grip on solvency in a business environment
poisoned by monstrous salary inflation; and the most divisive, damaging
labor stoppage in league history loomed just six months away.
Late that night, Vancouver Canucks'
winger Todd Bertuzzi lumbered into this ice noir landscape, sucker-punched
Colorado's Steve Moore from behind late in a 9-2 Avalanche blowout,
drove him to the ice and broke his neck. Moore, whose mid-February hit
had left Bertuzzi's teammate, star winger Markus Naslund, with a concussion,
may never play again.
In an instant, hockey's oldest
wound was reopened and, within days, rubbed raw. Discussions of NHL-sponsored
violence filled the usual hockey hallways - a headline in The Hockey
News asked, "Is NHL Violence Out of Control?" USA Today columnist Christine
Brennan, who rarely writes about the game, pondered a winter without
the NHL. "Who among us would notice? How many of us would complain?"
The Canadian Mindset
The hockey-bashers who dismissed
the game with a wide brush stroke, of course, angered those who treasure
its beauty, speed and inherent emotion while themselves acknowledging
the painful fact that it sometimes produces such horrid scenes.
While decrying acts like Bertuzzi's,
Canadians in particular are fiercely protective of the game's physical
nature. The legendary Conn Smythe, who turned the Toronto Maple Leafs
into a Canadian institution, best summed up the Canadian mindset by
declaring, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you won't beat 'em on
the ice." That adage remains widely accepted in Canada and North America.
"It's still the way a lot of people
feel," says Mark Brender, senior writer at The Hockey News.
"But the risk of really seriously
hurting somebody in Conn Smythe's day was almost negligible - unless
you swung your stick at somebody. Guys were 5-8 and 150 pounds and traveling
at two-thirds the speed of players today. The size and speed of players
now in relation to the size of the rink has made the sport much more
dangerous. If someone subscribes to that philosophy today, it has much
more serious overtones."
NHL history is dotted with incidents
of almost incomprehensible misbehavior by players. In 1933 Boston's
Eddie Shore hit Toronto's Ace Bailey from behind, fracturing his skull
and ending his career. Shore apologized before leaving the rink while
Bailey, in and out of consciousness, reportedly replied, "It's all part
of the game."
Montreal's Maurice Richard was
suspended by president Clarence Campbell for the final three games of
the 1954-55 season and entire playoffs after he swung his stick at Boston's
Hal Laycoe. Just days later, Campbell's presence at the Forum touched
off riots that left part of the city burning.
Lack Of Respect
What is particularly troubling
about the Bertuzzi hit - which cost Bertuzzi $501,000 in salary for
a suspension that covered the final 13 games of the season, the playoffs
and an unspecified number of games next season - is that it was followed
in short order by more intolerable acts.
Columbus' Jody Shelley sucker-punched
Alex Henry of Minnesota (three-game suspension); Dallas' Marty Turco
high-sticked Ryan Smyth of Edmonton (four); Toronto's Wade Belak high-sticked
Colorado's Ossi Vaananen (eight); Mark Messier speared the Penguins'
Martin Strbak (two).
In the wake of Bertuzzi's punch,
the league issued 10 more suspensions and fines totaling $490,000. Commissioner
Gary Bettman sent a memo to all teams warning coaches and GMs they would
be held accountable for the actions of their players.
"There's just not enough respect,"
says Penguins' winger Steve McKenna, who drops his gloves whenever he
has to and whose 2003-04 season was ended prematurely by an injury suffered
in a fight. "There's a lot of cheap hits. I'm all for playing tough,
but you have to use your head. If a guy's in a bad position, you don't
hit him. That's not soft. That's smart.
"You can't put your finger on
why there's not as much respect, but you really see it changing. It
should trouble everybody."
It troubles Ken Dryden, the former
Cornell law student who won six Stanley Cups with the Canadiens before
retiring to become one of Canada's foremost writers on the game and
During a March speech at a symposium
on the future of hockey, Dryden wasn't about to take the state of the
game in stride. "We need a complete, thorough, ambitious and fundamental
review of all aspects of the game, and we need it now," Dryden said.
"We need to look at the way we play and the code of how we play, and
we need to look at public standards today, what is acceptable and what
isn't. Hockey has always been dead-square mainstream Canadiana, but
hockey today is at risk of becoming an extreme sport."
Canadian writer Roy MacGregor
called the speech brilliant. In a Toronto Sun story about the reaction
of the Leafs to Dryden's speech, Toronto coach Pat Quinn said, "We're
always saying, "Look at our game, let's change it.' I remember sitting
in a GM meeting thinking, 'Let's leave the bloody thing alone. It works.
It's good.' "
Policing Their Own
Part of the dilemma is that the
hockey community isn't unanimous in the belief that by permitting fighting
the NHL breeds the more isolated acts of violence like that of Bertuzzi.
Many, like McKenna, see fighting as an activity that allows for the
policing of those who commit more dangerous fouls.
"If somebody wants to take a run
at somebody, let him pay the price. If he wants to play that way," says
former Penguins' center Dave Hannan, "then BOOM - he better be ready
to answer the bell. That's how I grew up, and the game was more organized."
Both Hannan and McKenna lament
the advent of the instigator penalty, which they believe prevents players
from policing themselves because they are reluctant to draw an extra
penalty that might hurt their team.
Former Penguins' defenseman Moe
Mantha, who coached with the U.S. National Development Team and in the
Ontario Hockey League, says the ban on fighting by the NCAA has led
to other problems.
"When we'd play college teams,
there was a lot of vicious slashing going on," he says. "It got to the
point where you're thinking, 'Boy, I wish there was fighting so we could
stop this crap.' "
Ironically, fighting and dangerous
stickwork virtually disappear in the playoffs as players focus on avoiding
penalties and winning games - while still playing a hard and physical
game. The annual result is the best hockey of the season. Why can't
the regular season be played that way?
"That's a great question," says
Hannan. "If we all knew the answer, we'd be working for Gary Bettman."
PSR Senior Writer Bob Grove
has been covering the Penguins since 1981 and currently serves as a
regular co-host on the Penguins Radio Network.