OLYMPICS

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

Hockey’s a tough sport, and nice guys do finish last. Wayne Gretzky knows this. So he picked Todd Bertuzzi.

JONATHON GATEHOUSE January 30 2006
OLYMPICS

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

Hockey’s a tough sport, and nice guys do finish last. Wayne Gretzky knows this. So he picked Todd Bertuzzi.

JONATHON GATEHOUSE January 30 2006

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

Hockey’s a tough sport, and nice guys do finish last. Wayne Gretzky knows this. So he picked Todd Bertuzzi.

OLYMPICS

BY JONATHON GATEHOUSE • Let’s review the facts. Todd Bertuzzi may well be a caring father, loving husband, and an absolute peach as a teammate, but there’s ample evidence he is not a nice man. Off the ice, he possesses the kind of personality that sends sportswriters scurrying for the thesaurus: surly, antagonistic, truculent. On it, he is a six-foot-three, 235-lb. sack of malevolence with a history of violence. His March 2004 sucker-punch attack on Steve Moore left the Colorado Avalanche centre with a broken neck, made international headlines, and cemented hockey’s image—south of the border, at least—as boxing on skates. Bertuzzi has 987 penalty minutes, and counting, in 684 NHL games. He also has 502 points, 214 of them goals, and is considered one of the top power forwards in the sport.

That’s because at his mean-spirited best, Bertuzzi is like a force of nature. A punishing bodychecker in the corners, an immovable object in front of the crease, and most importantly to the coaches and GMs who slaver over his talents, blessed with soft hands. Take some examples from the past couple of weeks. In an 8-1 Vancouver rout over the New York Islanders on Jan. 14, “Big Bert” scored three times from the slot, manhandling defenders like King Kong tossing Model-Ts around Times Square. Two nights later against Pittsburgh, he spent the better part of a power-play jousting with a Penguins defenceman at the edge of the net, carving out the space he needed to snap home a cross-crease pass as part of a 4-2 Canuck win. Even in games where he doesn’t make the score sheet, he can set the tone. On Jan. 8, in the second period against Calgary, Vancouver had a Sami Salo goal disallowed because Bertuzzi was judged to have bumped Miikka Kiprusoff inside the crease. When play resumed, he promptly set up another screen, this time just outside the blue ice. Salo scored again, as Bertuzzi, in typical LadyByng-be-damned style, pointed at the net and screamed at the officials: “Is that one in? Is it?” The Canucks went on to win 4-3 in overtime, their first victory of the season against the then division leading Flames.

When the NHL reinstated Bertuzzi last August at the end of the labour lockout—his net punishment for shattering Moore’s career was 20 games and the forfeiture of US$500,000 in salary—it sparked a round of condemnatory columns and outraged editorials. The howls just got louder with his December selection to the Canadian Olympic team in Turin. “Twenty-five proud young men. And then there’s Todd Bertuzzi,” Jack Todd wrote in the Montreal Gazette. “You have to wonder how Wayne Gretzky & Co., could possibly add [him] to any team that is supposed to represent this country or the game of hockey.” Defenders of the 30-year-old winger pointed out that he paid a humiliating price for his violent transgression. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to a charge of assault causing bodily harm, receiving a conditional discharge, a year’s probation and 80 hours of community service. Moore, who continues to suffer aftereffects from the attack, is pursuing a multimillion-dollar civil suit. The ultimate hard man has even made a couple of tearful public pleas for forgiveness. “I’m a firm believer in second chances, and if we’re going to go through life not giving anyone second chances, what kind of life are we going to have?” he asked at the Team Canada training camp in August. “People make mistakes in life. Unfortunately, I was under the microscope and on TV when my mistake happened.”

It’s like a parody of the debates other countries have about discredited regimes or rebels who are finally willing to come out of the

mountains and lay down their arms. Perhaps what Canada’s tortured hockey soul really needs is a truth and reconciliation commission. If so, let’s start with the obvious admission-most of this country would happily boil their grandmothers for glue in exchange for another gold medal. When the puck drops against Italy on Feb. 15, the Olympic hockey tournament will be all that matters for the next 11 days. A slow start, like in 2002, will produce an epidemic of whinging and handwringing. A miracle finish (again—see Salt Lake) will give our uptight, northern culture its quadrennial excuse for hugging strangers and dancing in the streets.

GRETZKY would have taken Bertuzzi for the 2004 World Cup if he’d not been suspended

you ond guessing,” says Kevin Lowe, Edmonton Oilers GM and Team Canada’s assistant executive director. The Olympic brain trust—Wayne Gretzky, Lowe, coach Pat Quinn, and their assistants—spent months mulling over the choices, knowing that only one outcome will satisfy the fans and critics. “There’s no budget to worry about, no hidden agendas,” says Lowe. “It’s about picking a team to win.”

For Salt Lake, the philosophy was to take the best available NHL and, the

fly, try to mould them into a team. Four years later, only 10 of those gold medallists are returning. Some, like Al Maclnnis, have retired, others, like Mario Lemieux, are injured, and the rest simply didn’t make the cut. In the enviable position of having enough top-flight talent to form two or three competitive teams for Turin, Canada’s selection committee has tried to strike a balance between proven stars, role players and young guns, placing a premium on guys who have a history of playing well under pressure. There’s the nucleus from the 2002 team, Joe Sakic, Simon Gagné, Jarome Iginla, Martin Brodeur. The high-profile additions like Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Rick Nash, who proved their worth in the 2004 World Cup. And one big gamble.

Bertuzzi has caught fire in the last couple of weeks, but his early season play was lacklustre. And although he’s averaging just under a point per game, that’s only good enough for 36th place on the scoring list in the newly offensive NHL. A far cry, admits Lowe, from before his suspension, when the Oilers GM would have ranked the Canuck winger as one of the top three forwards in the world. “That’s clearly not the case this season.” Bertuzzi will be wearing the maple leaf in Turin solely on the basis of his past prowess, his proven ability to make things happen on the ice when counts. “He’s very difficult to handle because of his strength and size. He can create space for himself down low, hang onto the puck and make the play,” says Lowe.

Good citizenship didn’t really factor into the decision. Lowe suggests it might have been different if he was picking the team a year ago, but Gretzky made it clear in 2004 that he would have selected Bertuzzi for the World Cup squad if he wasn’t then under suspension by the NHL—less than six months after the attack on Moore. The hockey world has moved on, even if the press, and some of the public, haven’t. “There’s more social consciousness and political correctness these days. And hockey is a little less barbaric than it was, and those are good things,” says Lowe. “My own personal thoughts are that he’s paid the price.” It’s worth noting that the NHL rewrote the rule book this season to crack down on hooking and holding, not fighting. Hockey remains a violent sport, and many of its greatest heroes had mean streaks at least as wide as Bertuzzi’s. When Maurice “Rocket” Richard was suspended for the remainder of the 1955 season, sparking the famous Montreal riot, it was because he clubbed Boston’s Hal Laycoe over the head repeatedly with his stick. Three months earlier, he’d done the same thing to Toronto’s Bob Bailey, and a linesman. Part of the legend of the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets—the wellspring of Canadian hockey nationalism—is how Bobby Clarke deliberately injured Valeri Kharlamov, wood-chopping his ankle at the urging of co-coach John Ferguson. Mark Messier, feted as one of hockey’s consummate leaders when the New York Rangers retired his number earlier this month, was suspended more than a half-dozen times, including a 10-game penalty for breaking the cheekbone of Calgary defenceman Jamie Macoun in 1984-85, and six games during the 1988-89 season for knocking out four of Rich Sutter’s teeth with a stick. (Gretzky and Lowe, of course, were teammates.) If the Rocket, Clarke and Messier were all in their prime right now, would there be any question about whether they “deserve” to be on Team Canada?

It may not be right, but when it comes to hockey, it has long been permissible to cheer for the villain. And that’s not going to change between now and the gold medal game on Feb. 26. Back in August, wearing his Team Canada cap and jacket, Bertuzzi pledged to be a “better person on the ice.” Maybe that explains his cruddy start to the season, although he’s showing signs of snapping out of his funk. It’s a pity for Steve Moore and his family, but most Canadians really don’t care what the hulking Canuck has done in the past. They just want him to be as mean as necessary in Turin. We know that the best man doesn’t always win in hockey, but nice guys do finish last. M

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans. rogers. com