Bertuzzi’s Blame: Payback Punch Was Avoidable

Throughout the history of the NHL there have been countless illustrations of something we know as vigilante justice. When a player takes punishment into his own hands, rational human thought is often absent from the equation. When a situation becomes emotionally charged, things tend to turn ugly. It is simple.

We see suspensions and fines every year — for various acts on and off the ice — but in recent years we’ve observed these suspensions and fines at a higher frequency.

During the 2018-19 NHL season, 37 players faced suspensions with 28 of those players being fined thousands of dollars in addition to their suspension. At season’s end, 154 total games had been missed and over $3 million in fines had been dished out.

Harsher Punishments a Necessity

Pending the official announcement of a suspension, fans and players delve into heavy deliberation regarding what else will happen the next time the player in question hits the ice.

When Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin threw a high hit on Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler in Feb. 2017, tempers immediately flared. Wheeler stayed down for a few moments before forcing himself back up on his skates and going after Malkin, who was buried under multiple players near the Penguins bench.

Malkin did not have a meeting with the NHL Department of Player Safety and was not suspended for his hit. Despite leaving his feet and making direct contact with Wheeler’s head, there was no supplementary discipline from the league.

During the team’s next matchup on March 8, in Winnipeg, Malkin and Wheeler dropped the gloves. Wheeler, at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, made quick work of the Russian centre, landing some punches and wrestling him to the ice.

The importance of this event cannot be stressed enough: Malkin, who knew his fate and accepted it graciously, allowed Wheeler to get his ‘payback.’ It is also worth noting that the Jets captain showed poise and discipline by not retaliating in some brainless manner.

The ‘brainless’ award went to Penguins forward Tom Sestito in that game. Sestito was put in the lineup for an added injection of toughness, something not needed for that particular game. Wheeler was more than able to take care of himself.

The brute, at 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds, played just over one minute of hockey during the matchup, fighting Jets forward Chris Thorburn and then crushing the much smaller Jets defender Tobias Enstrom with a hit from behind.

Sestito was then ejected from the game. This play had no connection whatsoever to the previous hit on Malkin, and the NHL should have been suspicious of Pittsburgh’s sudden decision to add Sestito to the lineup.

Tom Sestito
Tom Sestito as a member of the Canucks. (Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

In 154 career NHL games, he has 10 goals and 11 assists for 21 points — by no means an offensive talent. A bit of foresight and proactivity could have been the difference maker in this situation.

Close to Home for Canucks Fans

It has been over 15 years since former Vancouver Canucks star Todd Bertuzzi infamously punched Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore in the side of the head, inadvertently ending the then 25-year-old’s career in a flurry of emotion.

While the tragic event has been discussed relentlessly over the past decade and the ensuing lawsuit is five years removed from activity, it remains a stain on the otherwise perfect career of the once 40-goal scorer.

One thing is for certain, though — Canucks fans remain divided on the subject of blame. While it is irrefutable that revenge is regularly doled out in the NHL, the severity of the 2004 sucker punch is a cut above many incidents that we bear witness to each year.

In an earlier article, titled ‘Five Most Hated Names in Canucks’ History’, I included Bertuzzi at #3. Some fans took issue with it, some agreed. The ensuing dialogues begged the question: Who is really to blame?

The obvious answer: Bertuzzi.

The not-so-obvious answer: the fans, the coach, other players, the NHL, etc. All of these answers are correct as well. They’re correct for different reasons. Despite how far removed this isolated incident is from the Canucks today, the article opened up old wounds for some fans.

Why are we bringing up this dark day still? Let it go people

Twitter user @NesanFurtado

Though a Twitter poll with 228 votes is hardly a majority of Canucks fans, it did offer a small sample size to work with, and surely enough, the percentage of blame fans believe Bertuzzi should assume was evenly distributed, with 34% of those voters saying Bertuzzi was 50% responsible for the happening. 17% said Bertuzzi was 0% responsible, and another 17% said Bertuzzi was 25% responsible.

The most important number, though, is the 32% — a number I didn’t expect — of voters who found Bertuzzi to be 100% responsible for his actions. This made my position a bit more malleable. Perhaps Bertuzzi was influenced and expected to take matters into his own hands.

I know: too little, too late.

The NHL’s Role

Following Moore’s headshot on then Canucks captain Markus Näslund, there was no discipline handed down by the league. This was, as we now know, the wrong move. It was also a move that forced the Canucks to take matters into their own hands — in the form of Bertuzzi’s fist.

Had the NHL suspended Moore for an adequate amount of time instead of simply ignoring the headshot, then maybe — just maybe — he would have continued to play in the NHL. At least for a few more seasons.

The NHL’s blatant indifference to the hit on Näslund opened the door for vigilante justice. Nobody is saying that an official suspension for a few games would have completely changed the outcome, but it is pretty likely. The NHL let Bertuzzi down.

Mark Crawford’s Role

After the dust settled, new information came to light. Not any new information that would necessarily be deemed shocking, but new information nonetheless. Bertuzzi claimed that in the team’s dressing room during that game, head coach Mark Crawford stated that Moore must pay the price, obviously feeling an inkling for retribution himself after the hit on his star captain, Näslund.

Avalanche rookie Steve Moore lies motionless on the ice following a punch by Canucks’ winger Todd Bertuzzi (THW Archives)

Despite tensions running high before and during the matchup, Crawford should have known better than to essentially tell his squad to get back at Moore. Not a calculated risk whatsoever, and from someone who naturally assumed the role of a leader in the locker room and on the bench, his words were rather thoughtless and contributed to the subsequent madness, at least to some extent. Crawford let Bertuzzi down.

The Fans’ Role

While you could find a half dozen other groups or people to throw the metaphorical ‘hot blame potato’ to, the fans had a powerful voice around the time of the incident. As a fan of professional, testosterone-heavy sports, one of the things we love and have always loved is a good fight.

We love bloodshed and passion. We love watching the bad guy get what he deserves. We don’t stop to think about the repercussions for the player we deploy, though. When fans were calling for Moore’s head, nobody considered that Bertuzzi or Brad May or Matt Cooke could possibly end up accruing a sizable suspension in the process.

It was careless, bloodthirsty behaviour by the fans, and despite our hearts being in the right place — wanting justice for ‘Nazzy’ — we didn’t once stop to consider the lasting effects that the inevitable violence could have on the playing career — or quality of life — of those involved.

Bertuzzi’s career came to a rolling stop after the incident despite, putting up a handful of 40+ point seasons in the following years. The heavy hitting Canuck spent time in Anaheim, Florida and Detroit before playing two games with the AHL’s Binghamton Senators during the 2014-15 season. Those were the last professional games of Bertuzzi’s two decade-long career.

Regardless of the passion the fans exuded that day, the fans let Bertuzzi down.

Hands of Stone and a Heart of Gold

After all these years it is apparent to me that the fans in Vancouver remember all too well the pain and suffering of not just Moore, but Bertuzzi as well. It may not be right to place all of the blame on the tenacious Canucks winger after all.

In some strange way, Bertuzzi only did what he truly believed to be right, and he wanted to show the people of the city of Vancouver that their favourite players would be safe with him around.

Todd Bertuzzi, Detroit Red Wings
Former Canucks fan-favourite Todd Bertuzzi finished up his NHL career in Detroit, where his nephew now plays (THW Archives)

Todd’s nephew, Tyler, already plays on the wing with the Detroit Red Wings, so here’s to hoping that his son, Tag — who was not selected in this year’s draft — one day makes his way to Vancouver so that we can see his name embroidered on a Canucks jersey one last time.