March 11, 2004

Stop the Shock: Huge Hits and Big Brawls Belong in NHL

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As it turns out, in the end we’re all Claude Raines. You remember Claude Raines, right? Sure you do. He’s the biting, cynical Frenchman who played police chief Louis Renault in Casablanca:

“I’m shocked — SHOCKED! — to find gambling going on at this establishment!”

Waiter: “You’re winnings, sir.”

“Oh yes, thank you.”

On Monday night, the Avalanche’s Steve Moore was sucker-punched by Todd Bertuzzi of the Canucks. Moore is in the hospital with a broken neck and now everyone is shocked –SHOCKED! — to find violence going on in hockey games.

Today, Bertuzzi will learn the length of his suspension, handed down from the NHL administration. Media outlets and columnists around the nation are calling for his head, saying that he deserves everything from a season-long suspension to a lifetime ban. The Avalanche coaches and managers are decrying the act as a criminal blemish on their beloved sport; even the Vancouver Police Department is investigating.

I’m in the minority here, because I don’t think Bertuzzi should miss more than the end of the current regular season. No special punishments, cuts in salary, or criminal charges needed here. All Bertuzzi did was punch a man in the back of the head; why does everyone have a problem with that?

Shocked yet?

Well, you shouldn’t be. The fallout from Monday’s incident is only the latest case of overreacting in a string of such occurrences throughout sports, especially in the NHL. Hockey, football, and even baseball are dangerous games; violence is necessary, inherent, and condoned.

Ah, but this was a sucker-punch, the most vile of punches. Even in hockey, which has five pages of its official rulebook devoted to “fisticuffs”, Bertuzzi’s hit was illegal. That’s right, it was illegal, and he should be suspended for it. But we shouldn’t be raking him over the coals here.

Think about it. Bertuzzi (a man wearing a padded glove) punched Moore (a man wearing a helmet) in the head. Granted, Moore is lying on a backboard in a Vancouver hospital with a broken neck (projected to make a full recovery, by the way), but you can’t look me in the eye and tell me that Bertuzzi’s blow caused the fracture.

Moore’s teammates jumped on Bertuzzi after the punch, essentially tackling the both of them and driving Moore’s neck into the ice. Moore is in a hospital because of a freakish pile-on, not because of a knuckle sandwich.

Before you shed a tear for the wounded Av, you should know that last month Moore took out Canuck’s captain Markus Naslund with a cheap shot of his own. That’s why Bertuzzi went after Moore in the first place; he was only protecting his teammate. Why wasn’t Moore strung up from the nearest yardarm like Bertuzzi?

There’s a schism in sports between what is said out loud in such situations and the underlying current of truth. Any athlete can attest to this. My girlfriend and my mother would recoil in horror if I told them what goes through my head before a race, if I told them what kind of bodily harm I’d like to inflict upon my opponents. It’s the heat of battle; just because there aren’t actual bullets whizzing past doesn’t temper your mentality or lessen your killer instinct. If someone gave my teammate a concussion on a cheap shot, well, I wouldn’t want to break his neck, but I’d sure as hell want to get close. Maybe just his leg.

I’d like to think that the athletes reading this would agree with me. And I’d like to think that any coaches reading this would want guys like Todd Bertuzzi to play for them.

Hypocrisy is deriding violence with one hand while allowing it with the other. The NHL is a league that lets its players drop their gloves and have at it, the Marquis of Queensbury be damned. Yet, when a player like Bertuzzi exacts revenge on behalf of an injured teammate, they call for his head. You ask an athlete to lay his body on the line every night, but then tell him that he’s gone too far? Shame on you.

Hypocrisy is Avalanche head coach Tony Granato referring to Bertuzzi’s hit by saying, “There’s no room in our game for that,” when he himself was suspended for fifteen games during his playing days for slashing an opponent in the face with his stick. He’s the coach and he has to come out in support of his injured player. He’s forced to play the media game and say what is morally expected of him, but there’s no way he believes the words that come out of his mouth. I’ll bet he’d like to strap his skates back on the next time the Canucks come to town.

And there’s no easy fix for this kind of violence. Bertuzzi went after Moore fully aware of the consequences — he knew that he’d be suspended. But that knowledge didn’t stop him from completing his vendetta, just as it hasn’t stopped the thousands of hockey players before him. Warnings from the umpire don’t prevent pitchers from putting a fastball between someone’s shoulderblades if his own batters are being thrown at. Changing the rules is meaningless; the rules are already being broken.

I’ll take a very liberal stance by saying that I think that we should let the players police themselves. These guys know the score; they understand that they’re not out there playing chess. Let them go, and I guarantee you that the violence in the NHL will decrease. Players will know that there are immediate consequences for crossing the line, consequences that will hurt more than a fifteen-game suspension.

That said, I understand why the league has rules on illegal hits and strict legislation against the malicious use of sticks (re: Marty McSorely). But don’t make an example out of Todd Bertuzzi. Remember, had the ensuing flashpile not crunched Moore’s spine, we wouldn’t even be talking about this. We’d just be watching hockey, collecting our winnings until the next time we’d be forced to act shocked — SHOCKED! — that there is violence going on in hockey.

Archived article by Per Ostman