The Fault Is Bertuzzi’s

The continuing pontification about the Todd Bertuzzi Steve Moore incident that left Moore with a broken neck and Bertuzzi suspended for at least the rest of this NHL season was to be expected and to some extent is understandable. It was a horrible incident. But some of the gratuitous piling on is getting a bit ridiculous. It’s an excuse for those writers who for some reason have a compulsion to criticize all things hockey a free shot at a game they don’t like and don’t understand.

Even Mitch Albom, who has followed that Detroit Red Wings juggernaut of the 90s and has written lovingly of many hockey players over the years couldn’t resist misusing the good old hockey cheer “Hit somebody!” to illustrate how out of control the violence in hockey has become.

Of course, anyone who really follows the sport knows that in hockey “hit somebody” means “check somebody.” That’s just not the same thing as “throw a punch.”

First, let me make this clear, I can live without fighting in hockey. Sometimes I can understand it, but most often it seems a cartoonish sideshow to give jobs to guys who couldn’t carry a third liner’s jock. I would be just as happy if checking were the only hitting we watched or talked about in hockey. Checking should be physical enough for any fan not headed for a psych ward or his own little prison cell.

But there is a big difference between facing off with a guy who is aware he’s being challenged, dropping the gloves, and fighting and what Bertuzzi did. Hitting a guy, who doesn’t know he’s going to be hit, while still wearing a glove that contains metal parts designed to protect your hand from sticks and pucks, not to make it an extra lethal weapon, and then pile driving that unconscious man head first into the ice isn’t equivalent to fighting. And it doesn’t spring from hockey fighting.

The swift and serious punishment meted out on Bertuzzi was justified, no matter the ultimate condition of Moore. And yes, I realize the penalty would not have been as great had Moore not had a broken neck, although I would certainly have been disappointed, no matter Moore’s injuries, if Bertuzzi hadn’t faced a long-term suspension with serious consequences to his team.

But somehow I get the impression from some of the commentators out there that they almost wish Moore had been paralyzed, just so we’d see if the NHL could do the right thing. There’s a certain amount of ghoulish glee at the NHL’s expense that smacks of the dialogue on most sports chat rooms across cyberspace. You know, the 12 year olds who rant “xyz sucks! abc rules!” If you love hockey you’re stupid, goonish, pro-violence. But we pristine fellows who follow real sports like NBA basketball and NFL football are so much more noble and refined of intellect and feeling than you.

They say fighting in hockey is barbaric and unacceptable. Just end it. (Again, I wouldn’t mind if it were gone, and I don’t think I’m a minority.) They point to the Flyers v. Ottawa contest of a week ago, not adding the context of it being an all time record for penalties in a game. That means, just in case they have trouble with perspective, that it wasn’t normal. You can go to NHL games for weeks at a time without a single fight. Well-officiated games rarely contain fights. Sadly, since highlights on Sports Center feature fights and scoring, too many people think fighting is prevalent and not the aberration it is on most nights in most arenas in the NHL.

And of course, Shaquille O’Neill’s elbows accidentally make contact with faces everywhere. And no one’s been known to cheap shot a defenseless player on the NFL field when an official was otherwise engaged. In short, what you find high-minded sports entertainment, I see as barely controlled hooliganism. The veneer is not so thick as to not be transparent. Again, I don’t want to preserver fighting in hockey. But I’d prefer that those throwing stones leave their glass houses first.

Will this Bertuzzi Moore incident do anything to remove the nonchecking variety of violence from the NHL? Actually, I think Joe Thornton’s broken cheekbone is more likely to encourage GMs to do something about fighting in hockey. That was an injury to a star player in a traditionally fair hockey fight between equal opponents. These guys are too big and too strong to continue to do this. And John Buccigross of ESPN is right, someday two big guys are going to face off and fight and one of them is going to end up dead. I’d much rather we eliminate that possibility.

But again, what Bertuzzi did had nothing to do with fighting in hockey. It had nothing to do with hockey. It was a two-week premeditated, on-ice mugging by a guy who thought he was important enough to get away with it.

He was wrong.

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