Cover

NO END IN SIGHT

The violence will continue until the NHL really makes offenders pay, writes JAMES DEACON

March 22 2004
Cover

NO END IN SIGHT

The violence will continue until the NHL really makes offenders pay, writes JAMES DEACON

March 22 2004

NO END IN SIGHT

Cover

The violence will continue until the NHL really makes offenders pay, writes JAMES DEACON

ON DEC. 12, 1933, early in the second period of a game against Toronto, Boston’s Eddie Shore was knocked to the ice while leading a rush into the Maple Leafs’ zone. Shore was enraged that the referee didn’t call a penalty, and immediately went looking to settle the score with the nearest Leaf. The defenceman came up behind an unsuspecting Ace Bailey and violently flipped him backwards, causing his helmetless head to crash into the ice, cracking his skull and knocking him unconscious. Bailey spent the next five weeks in hospital, fighting for his life. When he did eventually recover, he was unable to play again and his career in hockey was limited to working as an assistant penalty timekeeper at Maple Leaf Gardens. Shore, for his sins, served a 16-game suspension.

There are direct links between the BaileyShore incident and what happened last week between Todd Bertuzzi and Steve Moore. The circumstances are similar: Bertuzzi’s cowardly attack, for those who somehow missed the endless replays, came from behind. Moore, a 25-year-old native ofWindsor, Ont., was hospitalized with two cracked vertebrae in his neck, a concussion and deep gashes in the face from the sucker punch to the temple and from having his head pounded into the ice. And Bertuzzi, 29, from Sudbury, Ont., was riled by what he felt was an uncalled penalty—albeit one in a game three weeks earlier.

The most galling similarity, though, was how the National Hockey League punished the offenders. Shore’s suspension, for a third of what was then a 48-game season, was a joke given the seriousness of the injuries and the impact they had on Bailey’s life. And last week was little different. NHL vice-president Colin Campbell sent Bertuzzi packing without pay (a loss of US$501,926) for the last 13 games of the current season and whatever number of playoff games the Canucks might play. And he must apply for reinstatement next season: NHL commissioner Gary Betunan says Bertuzzi’s eligibility will hinge in large part on how quickly Moore recovers from his horrendous injuries.

Bertuzzi could also face criminal charges: Vancouver police are investigating. But if he does get the green light to start the next season, Bertuzzi could be back on the ice as early as next September— suiting up for Team Canada in the World Cup of Hockey. How’s that for a message to the kids? If the NHL really intended to stop the senseless violence once and for all, Bertuzzi should have been sentenced to at least a full-season, 82-game suspension. Let him lose his entire yearly US$6.8-million salary—and then maybe other hotheads-onskates would take note.

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But this is the NHL. The league claims the Bertuzzi suspension is severe, and by past standards it is. And significantly, the league fined the Canucks US$250,000 and cited coach Marc Crawford for not defusing the lynch-mob mentality in the Vancouver dressing room prior to the Colorado game. Coaches and managers (think of recent incendiary comments from Philadelphia boss Bob Clarke) are sometimes as responsible as players for the blood spilled. But the league didn’t adequately address the macho culture that tolerates—often encourages—extracurricular violence. You want people to pay attention, you take money out of their pockets. It’s time to suspend coaches without pay and fine teams more heavily for allowing these vendettas.

As of now, players and coaches aren’t intimidated by NHL justice. Prior to the Vancouver-Colorado game, anticipating trouble, league officials warned they would seriously punish any Canuck who avenged Moore’s hit on Canuck captain Markus Naslund in a Feb. 16 game in Denver. It didn’t matter. This was vigilante justice, consequences be damned. In the twisted vernacular of the code, a player who exacts retribution is “a character guy,” standing up for his teammates—like some punk out of The Sopranos who wins respect by whacking guys. This despite the fact that body checking is legal in hockey, so there were other ways to retaliate. And Matt Cooke, another Canuck, had fought with Moore earlier in the game: further inflaming the Canucks, Moore won.

Enter Bertuzzi, whose boneheaded behaviour inflicted pain not only on Moore but also on the Canucks, the game and himself. When St. Louis’s Wayne Maki and Boston’s Ted Green nearly killed one another in a vicious 1969 stick fight-Green required emergency surgery to keep shards of his fractured skull from cutting into his brain—hardly anyone saw it because there were no 24-hour sports and news networks then. What damages the NHL’s image in the all-news-all-the-time age, especially in the U.S., where the fan base is comparatively small, are countless replays of Los Angeles defenceman Matt Johnson sucker-punching the Rangers’ Jeff Beukeboom in 1998 (the subsequent concussion forced Beukeboom to retire), and of Boston’s Marty McSorley chopping down the Canucks’ Donald Brashear with a two-handed slash to the head in 2000. And now Bertuzzi. Despite the rock-’em-sock-’em gospel preached on Coach’s Corner— and yes, some fans do want fighting—this level of violence turns off the very audience the NHL yearns to attract.

Vancouver’s Stanley Cup hopes may be sidelined with Bertuzzi. It’s a talented team, and he’s a powerful presence in the lineup, a high-scoring power forward whose malevolent presence creates space for his skilful linemates, Naslund and Brendan Morrison. And while he can be surly with the media, with teammates he’s a gregarious, well-liked guy who’s a key to the Canucks’ harmonious chemistry. So without him, Vancouver isn’t the same. And while he hardly deserves sympathy—no matter how many tears he shed during his public apology—he dealt a permanent blow to his reputation. Kids will grow up associating Bertuzzi with one crazy act the way their grandfathers never forgave what Shore did to Bailey.

There’s an entrenched cadre in hockey that accepts a certain amount of brutality as inevitable. And when the results turn stomachs, as they did last week in Vancouver, these apologists resort to their standard defence: that it’s an emotional game in which players sometimes get a little carried away in the heat of battle. But that doesn’t wash. Competitors in other emotion-charged sports don’t fight, beat one another on the head with sticks or drive opponents headfirst into boards. There aren’t trash-talking, facewashing scrums—or outright fights—after whistles in pro football games, where the hits and dirty tricks are no less provocative. Heck, even boxers pull their punches when the bell sounds to end a round.

And forget the emotion of the moment— Bertuzzi wreaked his vengeance 21 days after Moore’s hit. The NHL reviewed the incident and deemed it within the rules. Naslund, who suffered a mild concussion, returned to the lineup after three games. Yet when they should have been cooling off, the Canucks kept stoking their anger. Tough guy Brad May even offered a bounty on Moore.

If the league had imposed a full-year ban, Bertuzzi, with the help of the NHL Players’ Association, might have won reinstatement in the courts. But a legal challenge to its punishment isn’t by itself a reason for the NHL to not seek a meaningful sanction. This was an opportunity, beyond simply punishing a prime offender—as if his behaviour were an aberration—to change the culture that creates such outrages. The league could have established hard sentences for serious offences; at the moment, no one knows exactly how Campbell comes up with the fines and suspensions he doles out. It could also do something simple and radical: bring its punishment into line with other sports (soccer, football, baseball) and eject players who fight. Then maybe the NHL game might begin to look like the free-flowing, mostly fight-free brand of hockey that enthralled Canadians at the Winter Olympics.

None of that’s going to happen. Some New York-based administrators of the league, fearing a backlash in the one country where hockey really matters, are loath to provoke the Canadian hockey establishment. And any serious change would have to come from the NHL governors, who get their rulechange recommendations from the men who run the 30 teams. Those general managers grew up in the culture—most of them are as devoted to the code as the players are. This is the NHL the way they want it. Campbell was asked at the press conference announcing Bertuzzi’s suspension whether the league might finally be ready to ban fighting. “Fighting in the game of hockey has been there, and maybe, at some point in time, it will be banned,” Campbell said. “But right now, it’s part of the game.”

So long as TV hockey highlights remain synonymous with fisticuffs, many parents will steer their kids into other sports; ticket buyers will choose hoops instead; sponsors will recoil in disgust. Routine fighting and the Bertuzzi attack are connected, no matter what NHL bigwigs say. If you condone bareknuckle brawling, you’ll never be able to stop other forms of on-ice violence.

Back in 1933, after he’d had time to think about what he’d done, Eddie Shore went to the Leafs’ dressing room where Ace Bailey, groggy but conscious again, was being treated. Shore was visibly contrite and Bailey, an extraordinarily gracious man, accepted his apology. “That’s all right, Eddie,” Bailey said. “It’s all part of the game.” Maybe it is, but it shouldn’t be. lil