It has become the NHL's Zapruder film, the videotape of the March
8 assault by the Vancouver Canucks' hulking forward Todd Bertuzzi
on Colorado Avalanche rookie Steve Moore. A single graphic
sequence has elevated hockey from a beloved, albeit niche,
sport (the NASCAR of the North, if you will) into a
top-of-the-newscast spectacle. Playing smack into the
goon-show-on-skates stereotype, the endless loop of Bertuzzi's
punching Moore in the head from behind and then slamming his
head into the ice is the hockey equivalent of Janet Jackson's
right breast being exposed, a topic of continent-wide
conversation. People who think changing on the fly means
putting on a clean pair of pants were suddenly talking hockey,
among them Paul Martin, the prime minister of Canada, who said
the NHL must "clean up [its] act"; and the American College of
Sports Medicine, whose president-elect issued a statement
saying, "It's time to stop these muggings masquerading as
sport." Overnight the NHL found itself on trial even as
prosecutors in Vancouver were deciding whether or not Bertuzzi
should be criminally charged.
The sickening irony is this: If before the mugging Moore had
chosen simply to turn and fight Bertuzzi, who had been stalking
Moore, tugging on his jersey and goading him throughout the third
period of a lopsided game, Moore wouldn't have ended up
face-first in a pool of his own blood with two broken vertebrae
in his neck and a concussion. The two players could have pounded
on each other for a while, and the world would have paid no
notice. Because in the National Hockey League there is acceptable
violence and unacceptable violence, a distinction that makes
sense in the skewed, internal logic of the sport but is
inexplicable to almost everyone outside the game's cocoon. If
Moore had given in to Bertuzzi's taunts and dropped his gloves,
fans at GM Place in Vancouver would have roared, a score might
have been settled, and a league whose moral compass is as damaged
as Moore's neck would have cheerfully continued its slide into
The NHL reacted with severity, suspending Bertuzzi for the
remaining 13 games of the regular season and the playoffs.
Bertuzzi will forfeit at least $501,926.39 in salary and will
have to apply for reinstatement next season. There have been
longer suspensions in the NHL--in 2000 Boston Bruins defenseman
Marty McSorley was shut down for a year after he struck Canucks
enforcer Donald Brashear in the head with his stick--but none
more significant since 1955, when the Montreal Canadiens' Maurice
(the Rocket) Richard was suspended for the final three games of
the regular season and for the playoffs for slugging a linesman.
Although not a mythic figure like the Rocket, Bertuzzi, who in
2001 was suspended for 10 games for leaving the bench to join an
altercation, is a star on a Stanley Cup contender. The Canucks
were also fined $250,000, a punishment as significant as it was
belated. After Moore knocked Vancouver captain Markus Naslund out
of a Feb. 16 game with a hit to the head that wasn't penalized
(Naslund missed three games with a concussion), Canucks
fourth-liner Brad May said there would be "a bounty" on Moore.
That same night Bertuzzi called Moore "a piece of s---."
After the NHL announced Bertuzzi's suspension last Thursday,
commissioner Gary Bettman said the assault had nothing to do with
hockey. That is true only if the act can be separated from the
hockey culture around it, and it can't. Bertuzzi's act of
thuggery is only an extreme extension of the game's accepted law
of expediency: Scores are settled with a punch. The NHL is the
only league in which fighting isn't cause for immediate ejection.
Nor does the NHL explicitly penalize blows to the head, as they
do in the NFL, despite an alarming rise in concussions. The NHL
has a 166-page book of rules and many more nebulous, unwritten
ones, which fall under the general heading of The Code. In the
game in which he was attacked, Moore probably assumed he had
already honored the Code in the first period when he fought with
Vancouver's Matt Cooke.
If violence sells, there has been a paucity of buyers in many
cities in the United States, home to 24 of the league's 30
franchises. With a lockout looming after the Collective
Bargaining Agreement expires on Sept. 15, with losses approaching
what the league says are $273 million annually, with scoring near
record lows and without the presence of a crossover star such as
Wayne Gretzky, the league is not unmindful of its predicament ...
and its opportunity. "We understand that we have a chance to
write on a clean slate," says NHL executive vice president Bill
Daly. "We can make the game a little more fan-friendly."
But at this critical juncture the NHL operates as if it couldn't
spell catharsis if you spotted it the c and the a. Perhaps it can
rebuild its economic framework and rewrite rules about goalies'
playing the puck. The culture of violence, however, seems
immutable. As Daly said last week, "I can't say there's been a
large movement to eliminate fighting." The league remains
strangled by an ethos in which the ultimate game for most players
is a Gordie Howe hat trick: a goal, an assist and a fight. If the
NHL had the will, it could institute penalties so harsh that
fighting would be eliminated overnight. (There is clear precedent
in the NBA. In the wake of an ugly 1977 incident when Kermit
Washington decked Rudy Tomjanovich, the NBA made penalties for
fighting so exact and severe that such episodes are now rare.)
To prevent a strong no-fighting rule from encouraging the tactic
of having insignificant players start fights with star players to
take them out of the game, referees could moderate the penalty of
a player who did not start a fight. There are those who say that
slashing and high-sticking incidents would rise without the
ameliorative effects of fisticuffs. But the NHL would only need
to crack down hard on illegal stickwork and, voila, a reinvented
game might actually mirror the playoffs, those magical two months
when, with so much at stake, fighting vanishes.
Of course this is a nearly paralyzing issue for a league that
receives roughly 60% of its annual $2 billion revenue from the
gate. The core audience seems to embrace fighting. According to a
March 16 Hockey News fan poll, only 3% of respondents "dislike"
fighting. The NHL risks offending lifelong fans, but would those
fans really turn their backs on the game they love? And how does
that risk compare with the risk of failing to attract new fans?
With attendance down for the second straight year, the most
appropriate question for the NHL to ask itself about the possible
elimination of fighting is, What have we got to lose?
The most surprising immediate result of the Bertuzzi fiasco is
the quarter-million-dollar fine levied by Campbell against the
Canucks. The action suggests the potential value of such fines as
a deterrent to on-ice violence by establishing a new level of
accountability for coaches and general managers. In a game on
Feb. 26 in Ottawa, the Senators' Martin Havlat high-sticked
Flyers forward Mark Recchi in the face during a 1-1 tie. (Havlat
was later suspended for two games.) After the game Flyers coach
Ken Hitchcock said of Havlat, "Some day someone's going to make
him eat his lunch." A few weeks later, in the final minutes of a
March 5 game in Philadelphia between the two teams, there were 21
fighting majors in a 32-second span, and an NHL-record 419
penalty minutes. After the match Flyers G.M. Bob Clarke was
screaming outside the Senators' dressing room because Ottawa
coach Jacques Martin had sent enforcer Chris Neil on the ice to
fight a skilled player, Radovan Somik, in the final 1:45. Clarke
said that when the two teams meet again on April 2 in
Philadelphia, Ottawa stars Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfredsson
would be unable to hide. "The coach has a huge role in things
like this," said Detroit Red Wings veteran Brendan Shanahan. "All
a coach has to do is say something, and it can defuse the whole
thing. But when coaches and G.M.'s start saying this guy or that
guy's going to get it, it throws fuel on the fire."
The fact remains that the Sopranos-style cycle of retribution in
hockey has not been noticeably tempered by fines or suspensions.
Bertuzzi's assault, and others like it, will continue to happen
as long as fighting and on-ice violence remain central to the
game. And the Code will continue to be honored. Moore was
transferred from a Vancouver hospital to one in Colorado last
Saturday, three days after a remorseful, lachrymose Bertuzzi said
he had not intended to hurt Moore. And other players continued to
try to define and defend the nature of their game. Said Brashear,
the victim of McSorley's attack four years ago, "I probably would
have done the same thing [as Bertuzzi]. But I might have done it
a different way."
For the NHL it's time to punch in a new Code.
After Moore knocked Naslund out on Feb. 16, May said there would
be "A BOUNTY" on Moore.