Pittsburgh Sports Report
May 2004

Crossroads On Ice
Reaction To Bertuzzi Incident Illustrates Divide In NHL
By Bob Grove

On 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?" she wrote.

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 Leafs' GM.

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.

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