Among hockey fans and the media there has been much talk of Todd Bertuzzi being the "comeback" player of the year in the NHL. While this talk is warranted based on his play this season, many media outlets describe Big Bert's season as a surprise. Who could have predicted such an unlikely season?
Regular readers of The Voice of Sport may recall a September 9th article "Flame on!! Bertuzzi Comes to Calgary" which discussed Bertuzzi's arrival on the Red Mile. Flames fans were extremely concerned with his past, referring to him as "the biggest thug in hockey" in their letters to the Calgary Herald. I raised the question at the time; will Flames fans still be writing letters to the Editor if Bertuzzi scores 40 goals and leads Calgary to the playoffs? After 60 games it would seem there is a different tune on the jukebox these days at the Saddledome.
A comment from the Calgary Herald, February 24, 2009 - "I was against the Flames decision to take Todd. However, I have seen such a turnaround of attitude from him. He definitely has shown remorse for his past action. So, I decided that grace was due for him. What a player we have!"
Bertuzzi has consistently shown remorse for his past actions (the Steve Moore incident), apologizing on numerous occasions and facing the legal ramifications. Now that he's helping their team, fans in Calgary see a "new" man and are no longer referring to him as a "thug". As Tom Looney of Fox Sports Radio often states - the winners have a thousand fathers, and the losers are orphans.
While he won't net 40 goals, Big Bert is on pace for a 20 goal/60 point season and barring a late season collapse, Calgary should hold on to first place in the Northwest Division. With a 13 point lead over 8th place Dallas, a trip to the post season and home ice advantage in the first round seems to be a certainty for the hard working Flames. Bertuzzi is fourth in team scoring with 14 goals, 28 assists, and 42 points in 55 games played; including four game winners. He ranks fifth on the Flames for average ice time - averaging 18:40 per game. On February 14th, he had a season high 4 assists in a Calgary victory over the Phoenix Coyotes.
In his third tour of duty with Head Coach "Iron" Mike Keenan, Bertuzzi is close to returning to his all-star form. Adrian Aucoin explained the relationship to Iain MacIntyre in a Calgary Herald article February 18th, 2009 - "Mike likes the way Bert plays and Bert likes the way Mike coaches, and they bring out the best in each other. It's definitely a good fit."
There is no doubt General Manager Darryl Sutter and Bertuzzi will make an attempt to negotiate a contract extension. However, with his play this season will there be enough salary cap space? The Flames are already committed to $42.6 million in salaries next season and will need to re-sign Mike Cammalleri, currently second in team scoring with 58 points. At age 34, Bertuzzi may be looking for a multi-year contract in the $3 to 4 million per year range and the Flames may be better served committing those dollars to Cammalleri (a UFA at season's end) and Rene Bourque (a UFA after the 2010 season).
The larger reason for Bertuzzi's return to form, besides the faith shown in him by Coach Keenan and Calgary Captain Jarome Iginla, is his return to good health. Lost in the Bertuzzi/Moore situation is the fact that after his trade from Vancouver to Florida, Big Bert underwent back surgery for a herniated disc. He only played 7 games for the Panthers (for GM Keenan) before he had surgery, and then became a trade deadline acquisition by Detroit; playing in only 8 games before suffering a neck injury. In the 2007-2008 season, he was off to Anaheim to be reunited with former boss Brian Burke. Playing most of the season on the third line for the Ducks, which limited his ice time, he missed 14 games due to a concussion but still managed 14 goals and 40 points in 68 games.
The gamble for the Calgary Flames last summer was not "if" Bertuzzi's past would haunt him but would Big Bert's back hold up in the rugged Northwest Division. As he stated in his first trip to Calgary, "I'm going to come out and play hockey here and let my play do the talking". Luckily for Flames fans, Big Bert came to play. Have a great sports day everyone.