EVERY TIME the National Hockey League makes headlines with a particularly ghastly bit of on-ice thuggery, a chorus of tut-tutters laments the "violent culture" that besmirches an otherwise magnificent sport. In most cases, these handwringers come off as ignorant fusspots: folks who never played hockey--and, to borrow from the famous Al Michaels quip, wouldn't know a blue line from a clothesline--yet apparently feel qualified to deliver a verdict on the game's flaws. Genuine hockey fans, whatever their own thoughts on NHL goonery, don't have much truck with these people.
So it pains me--really pains me--to admit when the handwringers get one right. But such is the case when it comes to Todd Bertuzzi, the Vancouver Canucks winger who sucker-punched, pile-drived, and nearly killed Colorado Avalanche center Steve Moore in March 2004. No, Bertuzzi didn't get off scot-free: He was suspended for the rest of 2003-2004 season--13 regular-season games, plus the playoffs. And while everyone missed the 2004-05 campaign, due to a lockout, the NHL also barred Bertuzzi from playing in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, the past two world championships, and any European league. All told, he received a 17-month banishment--the longest in NHL history--and lost over $500,000 in salary: a nice piece of change, but only a thin slice of $5.2 million, his projected remuneration for 2005-2006.
Was that punishment enough? Yes, says NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who recently gave Bertuzzi the green light to return. "I find that the appropriate discipline to be imposed for Mr. Bertuzzi's conduct on March 8, 2004, is the suspension that has been served to date," Bettman explained in a statement last month. So that's that. Time for bygones to be bygones. Bertuzzi has already laced 'em up for training camp with the Canadian Olympic team in Vancouver, where thousands of cheering fans offered him a convivial "Welcome back." Said Wayne Gretzky, Team Canada's executive director, "He has been punished and served his time."
Asked by reporters about his reinstatement, Bertuzzi waxed metaphysical. "I'm a firm believer in second chances," he said. "If we're going to go through life not giving anyone second chances, then what kind of life are we going to have around here?" Deep thoughts. He also added a few morsels of contrition: "People make mistakes in life. Unfortunately, I was under the microscope and on TV when my mistake happened."
Those dastardly TV broadcasts. Without television, we might have been spared the terrifying images of the 6-3, 245-pound Bertuzzi whacking the 6-2, 205-pound Moore in the back of the head and then driving his face into the ice. People might not have understood the sheer brutality of his misdeed. But, alas for Bertuzzi, anyone tuning in to SportsCenter for days and weeks afterward witnessed the horrific replay.
As you might be guessing by now, I haven't exactly broken out the noisemakers and silly hats to celebrate Bertuzzi's vaunted comeback. I would rather see him remain in the dock until, well, at least until Steve Moore is physically able to play again. Of course, that day may never come. Moore can count himself lucky he isn't paralyzed. Heck, he's lucky he isn't dead.
For that matter, what if Moore had died? What then? That Bertuzzi wasn't guilty of murder speaks only to Moore's remarkable good fortune. As it was, Bertuzzi left the Avalanche center with a broken neck, a concussion, facial cuts, and recurrent periods of dizziness. He may also have robbed Moore of his livelihood. Moore's hockey future is iffy at best, and presupposes clearance by the Avalanche medical staff. Even if he does skate again, he'll always be one check away from a career-ending (and perhaps brain-damaging) head injury.
Small wonder Moore is piqued about Bertuzzi's reinstatement. Shortly after Bettman's decision, he spoke with Terry Frei of the Denver Post. "I was surprised to get the news," Moore said. "I am getting better, but I have a long way to go. It's difficult to see that [Bertuzzi's] able to play again when I still have a long way to go, and not just in hockey, but with my health." Does he ever watch clips of the punch? "I try not to," Moore told the Post. "A lot of times, especially when I first saw it, it was like, 'Thank God I'm still alive and able to walk.'" He has a civil suit pending in Denver District Court against Bertuzzi, the Canucks, coach Marc Crawford, and others.
Though Bertuzzi proffered a tearful apology at a press conference on March 10, 2004, Moore claimed he has yet to hear from Bertuzzi personally. "But I'm not waiting by the phone." In Bertuzzi's weepy remarks, which came two days after the incident, he insisted that he "had no intention of hurting" Moore. Oh? To repeat: Bertuzzi grabbed Moore from behind, punched him in the back of the head, and then drove Moore face-first into the ice, landing on top of him with the bulk of his weight focused around Moore's neck. What did Bertuzzi think would happen? The I-never-meant-any-harm defense beggars belief.
Bertuzzi apologists may reply that the episode cannot be understood outside of hockey's unwritten rules of on-ice vigilante justice. After all, less than a month earlier Moore had thrown a questionable hit on Canucks captain Markus Naslund, leaving Naslund with a concussion and gashes on his forehead and nose that required over a dozen stitches to close. Moore appeared to have caught Naslund with his elbow, whether purposefully or not. So, the argument goes, Bertuzzi was simply meting out "payback."
But that's nonsense. Payback would've entailed confronting Moore and challenging him to drop the gloves--the way many NHL rows are settled. (Indeed, a big reason the league still tolerates regulated fighting is to obviate uncontrollable violence like Bertuzzi's hit on Moore.) Instead, Bertuzzi chose to blindside Moore with the ultimate cheap shot. There was nothing "tough" or "gritty" about his attack. How to best describe it? I believe the operative word rhymes with "chicken split."
No, Bertuzzi's assault wasn't the righteous vengeance of a tough-guy enforcer. It was more like the psychotic outburst of a gutless punk. His reinstatement shames the NHL, and shows a callous disregard for Steve Moore's ongoing nightmare.
Duncan Currie is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.