Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Flame On!! - Bertuzzi comes to Calgary

On August 26th, the Calgary Flames introduced their summer additions to the media at the Saddledome: Rene Bourque, Mike Cammelleri, Curtis Glencross, Andre Roy, and the player everyone wanted to see, Todd Bertuzzi. Fans were quick to react to the July 7th signing, and several eyebrows were raised among hockey analysts. It should not have come as a complete surprise, besides the friendship between Bertuzzi and Flames Captain Jarome Iginla, this will be Big Bert's third tour of duty with Head Coach Iron Mike Keenan.

Drafted by the Islanders in the first round of the 1993 draft, Bertuzzi had am impressive 119 points for the Guelph Storm in his final OHL season. As a dispute was simmering in Vancouver between Mr. Canuck, Trevor Linden, and Coach/GM Keenan during the 97-98 season, Bertuzzi was a key piece of the trade that sent Linden into his 4 year exile to New York, Montreal, and Washington.

After Keenan's firing from Vancouver, ending a Keenan/Naslund feud, Bertuzzi's best season came in 02-03 on a line with Naslund and Brenden Morrison, scoring 46 goals and adding 51 assists. Then came the March 8, 2004 "hit" or "mugging" of Steve Moore. I'd like to address that later on in this article, for now let's continue with Keenan... After the NHL lock-out, which somehow counted towards Bertuzzi's suspension, Iron Mike was reaching out from Florida; making Bertuzzi the center piece of the Roberto Luongo trade. After scoring 7 points in only 7 games due to back surgery, Bertuzzi and Keenan were both out of Florida. A brief stop for 8 games in Detroit, then Bertuzzi was reunited with former Vancouver boss Brian Burke in Anaheim, but a concussion and third line status led to this summer's $2.6 million buy out.

This time around, it wasn't just Keenan that wanted Bertuzzi in town, good friend Jarome Iginla spoke with Bertuzzi before the signing. GM Darryl Sutter made the final decision, telling Eric Duhatschek in the Globe and Mail after the deal was announced, "I look at the power play. Even though we have the elements of Phaneuf and Iginla on it, I still think you put Cammelleri on there now and Bertuzzi, it gives you a totally different look - and it makes a big difference."

About fan reaction, Bertuzzi commented at his press conference, "Everyone has been very respectful and I hope it continues, especially when my family is around." He went on to say, "I'm going to come out and play hockey here and let my play do the talking."

While fans have been respectful in person, the anger towards Bertuzzi and the Flames is certainly in print. One comment in a Calgary Herald letter to the Editor at the time of the signing, "I can't believe a GM with Darryl Sutter's integrity would stoop so low as to acquire one of the biggest thugs in hockey." Harsh words indeed, but the biggest thug? A recent Hockey News article may shed new light on the Bertuzzi/Moore incident, while discussing another.

In the September 2, 2008 The Hockey News, Ken Campbell writes of former NHL player Ryan VandenBussche. Originally charged July 3, 2006 with 3 counts of assaulting a Police Officer and 1 count of uttering a death threat, for his involvement in a brawl outside a bar, he was found not guilty on July 9, 2008. The defense - VandenBussche's concussion history lead him to act without thinking - "over learned behaviour". After suffering at least 8 concussions and fighting 98 times in 310 NHL games, Justice Martha Zivolak agreed.

From the Canadian Press July 11, 2008, Justice Martha Zivolak ruled that "the action of Mr. VandenBussche engaged in was not voluntary as it related to the Officers, that it was not the product of an operating mind."

As Mr. Campbell states in his THN article, "The verdict in the VandenBussche case should be a wake up call to the NHL." While he doesn't address the Bertuzzi/Moore situation in his article, it crossed my mind, as did Marty Mcsorely and Chris Simon - 2 other players who "snapped" and were involved in brutal incidents on the ice.

I'll assume everyone has seen the Bertuzzi sucker punch on Steve Moore, so I don't need to describe it detail. The Vancouver Canucks and Moore's Colorado Avalanche play in the same division and their battles were becoming legendary in the early 2000's. Those of us living in Vancouver eagerly anticipated each game; the fact that Burnaby's Joe Sakic played for Colorado always added fuel to the fire. In October 2001, Bertuzzi was suspended for 10 games, having left the bench during a fight to defend teammate Ed Jovanovski - who was getting pummeled by Avalanche tough guy Scott Parker. This was a rallying point for the Canucks, who now looked to Bertuzzi for leadership, and he delivered - having his biggest seasons. When a blatant elbow by Steve Moore caught Vancouver Captain Markus Naslund in the head early in 2004, best friend Bertuzzi, as well as other Canucks promised retribution; leading us to the March 8th sucker punch.

Make no mistake, I don't condone Bertuzzi's actions. He was charged with assault and served 1 year's probation in a plea agreement. He and the Canucks are facing a lawsuit from the Moore family, as they should. However, $19 million seems a little excessive. Bertuzzi's offer of $300,00 is equally wrong. Moore was a fourth line player at best, but Bertuzzi's punch ended his career - $6-7 million would seem fair to both sides.

In a sport like hockey that is so reactionary, and the impact of each hit compares to a mini car crash; can players become too accustomed to dropping the gloves? Too accustomed to driving players into the boards? When it's time to let up, perhaps the muscles take over for the brain and players stop thinking - finishing a check even though the opponent is too close to the boards, or leaving their feet to finish a hit. Bertuzzi followed Moore up the ice, trying to lure him into a fight, but at some point could his mind have shut off? I don't offer this as an excuse, simply as another contributing factor. How many of the NHL'S uglier incidents have been the result of a player exhibiting over learned behavior?

The NHL and Commissioner Gary Bettman have several problems facing them in the foreseeable future, but I believe this issue needs their immediate attention. One of these days, someone is going to be driven into the boards head first and be killed, and the player who did it, may not even realize how it happened - he just reacted without thinking. Perhaps there will be another stick swinging incident or another sucker punch with worse consequences. The NHL needs to study "over learned behavior".

As for Bertuzzi in a Calgary uniform? If a fine hockey citizen like Jarome Iginla would give Bertuzzi a second chance, Flames fans should do the same, letting his play speak for itself. Will you still be writing hate letters to the Calgary papers if he scores 40 goals as Iginla's winger and takes the Flames into the playoffs? We'll see... Have a great sports day everyone.

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