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Tuesday, March 9, 2004
Updated: March 12, 11:26 AM ET
Despicable act deserves harsh punishment

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- You sit back, take deep breaths, search for means of awarding a benefit of a doubt to Vancouver Canucks winger Todd Bertuzzi.

But then you keep coming back to this, and this almost certainly is the case from the Maritimes to Florida, from British Columbia to Southern California:

Bertuzzi's cheap-shot sucker punch from behind on Colorado's Steve Moore on Monday night in Vancouver, and then his driving of Moore's head into the ice, was despicable and indefensible.

Bertuzzi should be suspended for a year. A full year.

It's sickening, and that was the case even before the news broke Tuesday morning that Moore had suffered fractured vertebrae. He has the use of his limbs, and there will be no paralysis, but that doesn't lessen the shock -- or the disgrace.

It still would have been sickening if Moore had walked out of the hospital Tuesday morning, groggy and with cuts. Instead, he was back in Vancouver, in good spirits while getting an afternoon visit from his teammates at Vancouver General Hospital, before the Avalanche moved on to Edmonton.

But this goes beyond sickening.

It goes so far beyond that it seems trivial to even talk about how the Canucks and Bertuzzi should be affected in terms of hockey.

But this has to be said: Bertuzzi should not be allowed to play for at least a year, under the precedent set by the period Marty McSorley ended up being banished for nailing the Canucks' Donald Brashear in the head with his stick in Vancouver.

Yes, that's taking into account the effects of Bertuzzi's actions, and not just the actions itself. If Moore hadn't been so severely injured, of course the argument would be different. Then it would have been to suspend him for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs.

But part of the hockey code, so embraced and so much a part of this incident until Bertuzzi's ultimate action stepped far over that undefined line, is accountability and responsibility. Even if Bertuzzi is genuinely remorseful, that doesn't mitigate what he did. It was worse than McSorley's nailing of Brashear.

Far worse. McSorley's actions were indefensible, but he was trying to goad Brashear into a fight. Bertuzzi was a coward, taking the cheap way out in a game in which his team was getting blown out at home. And even if one buys into every element of that code, Moore had answered the call earlier in the game, fighting Matt Cooke in the first period. At some point, even if there is an "obligation to fight," it is rendered absurd and irrelevant. If dropping the gloves at every "let's-go" challenge -- whether from Todd Bertuzzi or anyone, under weight-class standards or anything else -- is the inviolable standard, then that acknowledges the game is in the gutter and intelligence and even team issues be damned.

It's curious that this was the second time the teams had met since Moore's hit on Markus Naslund in Denver on Feb. 16, and the Canucks hadn't been as retributive in a 5-5 tie in Denver last week. Yes, that was a tight game and the points were important -- and by sheer coincidence (yeah, right) commissioner Gary Bettman was at the game -- but the irony was that in 1997, Colorado winger Mike Keane and Colorado coach Marc Crawford were justifiably disdainful of the Detroit Red Wings for waiting to seek justice from Claude Lemieux until the game was in Joe Louis Arena. And both Keane and Crawford were on the Vancouver bench Monday night, with Crawford smirking as Colorado coach Tony Granato -- mirroring Crawford's screaming at Scotty Bowman during the 1997 conference finals -- hollered at Crawford while Moore was down on the ice.

Is Granato a saint in this? Of course not. His own playing track record includes a 15-game suspension in 1994 for his own nailing of Chicago's Neil Wilkinson in the head with his stick after taking a hit from Wilkinson. The man who made the ruling in that case? Canucks GM Brian Burke, then the league's discipline czar. Especially late in his career, Granato was an agitating, often dirty pest.

Even long-time residents of Moore's "home" market remember Colorado Rockies winger Wilf Paiement's 15-game suspension for nailing Dennis Polonich with his stick in the Olympia in 1978. (Yes, there was a Colorado-Detroit enmity a quarter-century ago, but both teams were rotten and didn't draw.)

The Avalanche gooned it up in the third period of a loss at Dallas last month, with Jim Cummins citing the usual pablum about not wanting to show signs of surrender in a blowout. It was said at the time it would diminish the Avalanche's right to complain later without coming off as hypocritical, and this would be one of the instances of later if Bertuzzi hadn't stepped over the line. Colorado's Peter Worrell went after Calgary's Krzysztof Oliwa in Denver Sunday shortly after Oliwa, that goal-scoring artist, celebrated his goal in a blowout as he skated past the Colorado bench.

That doesn't change anything. It doesn't change the fact that irresponsible stick thuggery is abominable, and it doesn't change the fact that Bertuzzi's act is abominable. Yes, the "code" is supposed to be part of the self-policing process, but, again, even if the tenets of it are accepted at face value, a sucker punch from behind goes far beyond it. The defenders of the self-policing process are doing a disservice to their cause to try to downplay the degree of Bertuzzi's transgression.

When Matt Johnson drew a 12-game suspension for punching Jeff Beukeboom from behind in 1998, Colin Campbell -- Beukeboom's former coach -- was in his first season as Burke's successor in the discipline monitor's role.

Standards should evolve. Even the Supreme Court acknowledges that in a system rooted in English common law and precedents. The game doesn't need this. This, as in the black eye, the scandal, the condemnation, the derision from those -- hockey fans or otherwise -- capable of thinking beyond the boards. Nobody agrees with or condones what Bertuzzi did, of course. Nobody.

That's a given, right?

The league needs to take a stand to lessen the odds of this sort of act happening again.

Terry Frei, of the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."