Monday, August 15, 2005
Bertuzzi to end silence, but scrutiny will continue
By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com
VANCOUVER -- Todd Bertuzzi is back. Deal with it.
Of all the story lines crossing and crisscrossing the new NHL landscape, few have or will continue to evoke the kind of visceral response that Bertuzzi's return to the game has.
As it should be.
His shameful attack on Steve Moore on March 8, 2004, has exacted a terrible toll on everyone connected to the incident, from Moore and his family, to Bertuzzi and his own loved ones, to the Canucks and to the entire game itself.
On the same day when a camp began for players being considered for Canada's Olympic team, the disgraced power forward made his first public statements since being reinstated by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. This marked the first time he has publicly discussed any of the events that have unfolded apart from the brief, teary media apology two days after the hit.
It was a seminal moment in this tawdry, unfortunate tale.
Whatever the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Bertuzzi has thought or felt since that moment, it has been the subject of conjecture and secondhand reports.
Vancouver GM Dave Nonis told reporters last week that Bertuzzi was "in good spirits and was very relieved" when he learned the suspension had been lifted effective immediately.
Vancouver captain Markus Naslund said he re-signed with the Canucks, instead of seeking a trade as some have reported, in part because he knew Bertuzzi was returning to the team.
Bertuzzi's agent Pat Morris has spoken sparingly on behalf of his client, perhaps too sparingly, but has alluded to Bertuzzi's tremendous regret at the incident and the difficult times he and his family have endured.
In handing down his ruling, Bettman echoed those sentiments saying "after listening to Mr. Bertuzzi and his wife Julie Bertuzzi, I have no doubt that this period of indefinite suspension has been marked by uncertainty, anxiety, stress and emotional pain for the Bertuzzi family."
Beginning Monday, however, Bertuzzi will emerge from the long shadows of his banishment to confront the hockey world on his own.
Within hours of Bertuzzi's reinstatement a week ago, Canada's Olympic brain trust, led by executive director Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe and Vancouver assistant GM Steve Tambellini, extended an invitation to Bertuzzi to join the orientation camp that begins Monday in Vancouver and concludes Friday afternoon in Kelowna, B.C.
Had Bertuzzi, 30, declined in an effort to put off the inevitable encounter with the media and the hockey public, it would have handicapped his chances of being named to the Canadian Olympic squad in January 2006. History has shown players reject such invitations at their peril. So Bertuzzi accepted knowing he would be expected to behave as all players do under Gretzky's watch -- as noble servants to legions of Canadian hockey fans. No hiding out. No special favors. If you have music to face, then face it.
The tune facing Bertuzzi is decidedly dirge-like. Since his reinstatement, the overwhelming sentiment has been that justice was not served by Bertuzzi's 17-month suspension. The fact that no one ever promised justice, only punishment, has been largely lost.
Bertuzzi's suspension technically covered 20 games in total, the 13 regular season games that followed the attack and the seven playoff games the Canucks played in the spring of 2004. The suspension cost Bertuzzi more than $500,000 in salary, and he was banned from playing in Europe during the lockout, which may have cost him another $500,000. Bertuzzi also claims to have lost some $350,000 in endorsements and was forbidden from playing in last summer's World Cup of Hockey and the 2004 and 2005 World Championships.
Few would argue that had Bertuzzi played in that opening-round playoff series against Calgary, he might have been the difference for a Vancouver team that fell in overtime in Game 7.
The Flames went on to finish one game short of a Stanley Cup championship, dropping a seventh game in the Cup final to Tampa Bay.
Neither Bertuzzi nor the Canucks will ever know for certain, but the potential losses in revenues to the team run to the millions. On a more esoteric level, what might have been achieved, what was stolen by Bertuzzi's rash act of aggression is incalculable.
Therein lays the true element of Bertuzzi's punishment.
And so now Bertuzzi returns. But to what? How will he be received by his own teammates? Opposing players? Fans? The media?
And more to the point, what type of player and person will step forward Monday afternoon?
In removing the shackles from Bertuzzi's skates, Bettman did his best Dean Wormer impersonation, warning that Bertuzzi was "on probation" for the coming season. Bertuzzi must play nice or presumably face an even greater wrath than has already been shown.
Guess what? Bertuzzi doesn't play nice. The Canucks are not paying him $5.2 million this season to play nice. In theory, there is no such thing as a nice power forward.
How will Bertuzzi reconcile his own style of play, a style that ultimately begat criminal charges and possibly ended another player's career, with this new higher standard to which he is expected to conform?
If he second-guesses himself every time he strong-arms a defenseman behind the opposing goal or drives a forward into the boards, his effectiveness will be compromised, his value as a player diminished.
On a more human level, how will Bertuzzi react to being poked and prodded about the incident in every NHL city? How does he react to Moore himself?
Moore says he hasn't heard from Bertuzzi since the incident. If Bertuzzi doesn't reach out to Moore, he might be flayed for being an insensitive mutt.
Then there's the issue of the civil lawsuit filed by Moore in a Colorado court.
It is Moore's right to file such a suit. One could hardly blame him for covering his bases. But everything connected to his rehabilitation and Bertuzzi's response will now be filtered through the prism of this lawsuit. Does a direct apology translate into an admission of guilt? Just how close is Moore to being able to resume a career that had definite limitations based on his skill set right from the start? How does the suit play into that decision?
It is interesting to note that the first steps in Bertuzzi's public rehabilitation (or flogging, depending on your take) will take place against the backdrop of preparation for the Turin Olympics.
It was during the last Olympic season, 2001-02, that Bertuzzi enjoyed his breakout season, recording 85 points in 72 games (he was suspended for 10 games for leaving the bench during a brawl with, wait for it, Colorado), good enough for third among all NHL point-getters.
The following season he finished fifth in scoring with 97 points and was considered by some to be the game's most dominant player and appeared to have won a spot on Canadian rosters for the foreseeable future.
Prior to the Moore incident, Bertuzzi had slumped to 17 goals in the midst of a contract dispute and friction with coach Marc Crawford, and there were questions about his attitude. Then came the attack and the suspension.
Now he returns to fight a public relations battle it seems he cannot win, while hoping to reclaim a career that might have slipped through his fingers.
For those seeking justice, perhaps this is it.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.