WHAT SHOULD HOCKEY DO ABOUT ITS VIOLENCE PROBLEM?


Todd Bertuzzi attacked Steve Moore from behind on Monday night, breaking his neck, among other things. Today, the WB considers an appropriate punishment for Bertuzzi, and what, if anything, the NHL can and should do to clean up its violent sport.

NHL needs to carry a big stick here | From Jeff Merron
Todd Bertuzzi's cheap shot should cost him plenty. It's time for the NHL to set a new precedent for the kind of premeditated, violent payback that permeates the game. Because if the league doesn't do something, someone's going to get killed on the ice. It's just a matter of time.

Many people already have decided what Bertuzzi's penalty should be. ESPN.com's Terry Frei says Bertuzzi should be suspended for a year. Last time I checked, 54.5 percent of those responding to a SportsNation poll also believe that a one-year suspension is fair and just.

It would be a real and meaningful penalty. It would hurt Bertuzzi in his wallet. It probably would hurt the Canucks' bottom line as well, because Bertuzzi's absence this season probably means an earlier exit from the playoffs. And it means that the Canucks would begin next season (if there is one) at a real disadvantage.

That's a lot to think about, and a lot of hurt.

Todd Bertuzzi
This TV screen shot shows Todd Bertuzzi winding up to punch Steve Moore.

Some might object, saying that Marty McSorley, who used his stick to take down Donald Brashear from behind in 2000, got the same penalty -- a full year's suspension -- for a more serious crime.

In order for the players to understand -- for them to really comprehend -- how bad such "Rollerball"-like violence is, the rule book needs to be rewritten. Flagrant sucker shots that send an opponent slamming into the ice or against the boards should be recognized for what they are: sometimes season-ending and possibly career-ending or paralyzing. In a moment, one player can take another's livelihood away, and put him in a wheelchair for life. When such a thing could have happened as a result of a purposeful sucker punch, it's beyond that -- it's shameful. And the price should be a minimum one-year suspension. Period.

The NHL has to take it one step further, though. It's the only major sport in which players hold, continuously and in close proximity to opponents, a long, sharp stick. It can be a weapon, when used improperly. When a player decides to use his stick that way -- like McSorley did -- the penalty should be even greater. Maybe the rest of one season and all of the next. Maybe two full seasons. (McSorley was suspended for the remainder of the 1999-2000 season -- 23 games -- the penalty was later extended to one year, and it could have resulted in an 80-game ban.)

In any case, McSorley's penalty was not strong enough.

Many fans, and the NHL, consider fighting to be an integral part of pro hockey. There's no question about it: The NHL devotes five pages of its rulebook just to "fisticuffs," and many more to other kinds of severe violence that occur even when the clock's not running. In the rulebook, there's the phrase "clearly won the fight," which is a whole lot more than a wink at the brawl as sideshow -- it's a clear sanction.

There's no mystery as to why the NHL sanctions fighting. It draws the fans. It draws great publicity. I picture a comic-book panel with two players going at it, fists flying, noses bloodied, sweaters twisted and torn. There's a "Pow!" here and a "Wham!" there. And up in the right hand corner, in an office high above the ice, an old-style accountant wearing his green eyeshade adds up the night's receipts. In his thought bubble? "Ka-ching! Ka-ching!"

It doesn't have to be this way. Hockey, NHL-style, is still good, fun and exciting. But the brawls, and the cheap shots like Bertuzzi's that almost inevitably follow, should be gone. The penalties should be so severe that fights become rarer than shorthanded goals. The fighting has to stop in order for the NHL to show off what is, at its core, a beautiful game.

Here come all the hockey "experts" | From David Schoenfield
I was watching SportsCenter on Tuesday night with my wife, who is a big hockey fan, when the Bertuzzi hit was shown again.

Her comment was especially revealing: "Now columnists everywhere who haven't seen a hockey game all year will be writing on this."

Hockey is a tough game. Sometimes it is a violent game. It is nowhere near as violent as boxing or football. A hard check along the boards or even a sucker punch to the back of the neck don't normally have the same potential for injury -- or death -- as a pitcher deliberately throwing a 95-mph fastball at a batter's head or race-car drivers screaming at 230 mph down the backstretch at Daytona.

Nobody gets outraged when a defensive lineman delivers a crushing to a quarterback two seconds after he has thrown the ball or when a wide receiver gets clotheslined in the head.

Marty McSorley
Marty McSorley looks down at Donald Brashear after slashing him in the face with his stick.

Yet ... columnists everywhere will be ranting and raving about this play, pounding their fists on their imaginary typewriters and acting -- like they do once a year -- that they actually know something about hockey.

As Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn said when asked about Bertuzzi's hit, "Payback has been part of the game for 100 years." It is what it is. Steve Moore knew the game when he delivered a cheap shot to Canucks captain Markus Naslund last month. Avalanche coach Tony Granato knows the game -- he was once suspended 15 games for a stick to the face.

I'm not defending Bertuzzi's hit. It obviously crossed the line of fair play or even "payback" play and is unacceptable. If he receives a long suspension and misses the playoffs, it's a costly blow to a team with Stanley Cup hopes, and even Bertuzzi's teammates would admit that no attempt at payback makes that defensible.

But if you don't know the game, keep your ranting to something else.

Not a "fan" of this | From Eric Neel
I don't know the game, Dave. But I do know this: Hockey needs more fans than it has, and Bertuzzi's hit doesn't make me want to be one of them.

This isn't hockey From David Schoenfield
A hit like this occurs every three or four years, the mainstream media starts ranting and raving about a sport it never covers, and then a few fans like Eric Neel are turned off.

Maybe if Eric actually watched a game or two, he might enjoy the sport. Is Eric going to quit watching baseball the next time Pedro Martinez guns one at Jason Giambi's skull? Is he going to quit watching football the next time an illegal hit puts out Peyton Manning for the rest of the season?

My point? Bertuzzi's hit has nothing to do with hockey. Unfortunately, too many fans now think it does.

'Rookies' don't understand | From Eric Neel
I've watched a few games, Dave. I just didn't grow up with the sport. I think that's the difference. If I was already attached to the sport, I'd have some context for what I saw, and I'd have some history making it worth my while to place the event in perspective. You're right, Pedro throwing at Giambi's head is just as ugly. My point was that the NHL is, I think, pretty keenly interested in expanding its fan base, in bringing neophytes into the fold, and something like Bertuzzi's hit, whether its a function of an atmosphere the league allows or a function of one guy's anger, turns those folks off.

You say the hit has nothing to do with hockey. I think that's a good point. It's just that on tape Tuesday night, as you say, it looked like it did, and the distinction might be lost on rookie viewers.

Bertuzzi didn't order the code red | From Chuck Hirshberg
I started out on the fence on this one, and neither Jeff nor Dave has convinced me yet.

I have a hard time viewing this in the same light as a nasty football hit, Dave, because of remarks made some weeks back by the Canucks' Brad May, after Moore wiped out Naslund in an earlier game. "There's definitely a bounty on (Moore's) head. Clean hit or not, that's our best player, and you respond. It's going to be fun when we get him." (May later retracted and back off these comments.)

Got that? Clean hit or not. I admit, I don't much about hockey, but if that's the way the game is played, I don't want to know very much more.

But Jeff, while you make a very good case that the NHL is much to blame for this sort of thing (ka-CHING! ka-CHING!) the whole weight of your proposed punishment seems to fall on Bertuzzi. Doesn't May's comment make it obvious that anybody who skated against Moore on Monday night might have been called upon to take him down and mess him up? Why blame just Bertuzzi when both his team and his league set the stage for this tragedy?

Chris Clark
For casual NHL fans, fighting is a big draw.

Finally, let me say a word on behalf of us casual hockey fans. For us, NHL fights can be among the most entertaining parts of a hockey game, as long as nobody's seriously hurt. I'm sorry, but it's true. It's not just the violence, though that's certainly part of it. It's also the passion that hockey players often show when they brawl, their ankles trembling, their noses bleeding, their cracked teeth clenched with fury. Yes, Jeff, it can look like a comic book; but it can also look like a powerful and -- dare I say it??? -- inspiring metaphor for the way you sometimes have to fight through this mean old world.

So to say "it doesn't have to be this way" doesn't cut it for me. The NHL is "this way" because people like it, and there are millions of dollars to be made from it. What we need to concentrate on is preventing not fighting, but these horrible injuries.

No, but Bertuzzi followed the order | From Jeff Merron
Chuck, I don't just blame Bertuzzi, and I agree with you that the team and the league set the stage. And maybe the penalty I proposed is too harsh, especially considering where it would be coming from -- the very institution, the NHL, which pretty much looks the other way when it comes to violence that really has little to do with how the game should be played.

On the other hand, Bertuzzi's a grown man. Someone else could have done it, but he did do it. I still say at the very least he should be out until the end of the season, including the playoffs. And that some rules have to be rewritten.

I'm interested, also, in the folks who tune in to hockey games mostly (or only) to see a good brawl. Doesn't say much for the state of boxing these days, does it? Does anyone watch a title bout in the hope that a hockey game will break out?

OK, riddle me this | From Kevin Jackson
I don't really know the game that well, either, so maybe one of you can explain something to me &

Exhibit A: Hitting someone from behind with a glove on your hand is the most horrible act of the season, and it warrants a very long suspension ... perhaps a full season.

Exhibit B: Hitting someone standing in front of you with your bare fists warrants ... a five-minute penalty and one game off.

Now, I understand the whole "attacking a defenseless target from behind" argument ... but doesn't this discrepancy here jump out to anyone else?

"Warriors, come out and play" | From Patrick Hruby
The way I see it, the problem isn't hockey as a sport; it's hockey as a culture. More so than, say, football or basketball, hockey relies on self-policing, eye-for-an-eye, vigilante-style justice to define and enforce an acceptable level of physical violence. As Quinn put it, payback is a part of the game.

In a Wild West sort of way, I find this admirable: players taking personal responsibility for their game, teammates looking out for each other, and so on. Thing is, a town with 100 heat-packin' sheriffs can never feel truly secure. Not when everyone has their own idea as to what "payback" should consist of. One man's elbow to the ribs is another man's punch to the back of the head, particularly when the higher authority here -- the NHL itself -- winks and nods at bare-knuckle brawling.

What hockey needs, I think, is what the West needed way back when: stronger institutional norms and control, over a long period of time. Long enough to mellow the game's vigilante ethos. Players in every sport are going to police themselves in some shape or form; in hockey, they assume too much of the burden, with predictably horrifying results. Imagine a place where everyone not only has guns, but also feels it's their duty to settle every score in kind, rather than leave it to the ineffectual police. You'd have a dangerous, semi-lawless hotbed, like the worst, gang-infested ghetto you can think of or any number of wartorn parts of the globe. Substitute sticks for guns and that's the NHL.

Or maybe I just don't watch enough hockey, either.

Grave reality | From Robert Lipsyte
This is a story I'd like to see on Court TV.

First, the criminal trial, then the civil trial. Instead of the Dream Team of lawyers, we'd have the Ice Pack. After Bertuzzi goes to jail, we'll figure out how much he needs to pay Moore in compensatory and perhaps punitive damages.

This has to be lifted out of rink justice into real justice.

There's no question about it, the NHL has conditioned its fans to expect violence, and when that violence goes over the top, well, sorry, it just got out of hand. Sometimes boys will be superboys.

If that's OK -- and it's not with me -- then let the league mete out its punishment, but remember that it sends out this message: We'll deal with it because it's part of the game.

I don't believe it really is. I was covering the Rangers when one of my favorite players, Adam Graves, broke Mario Lemieux's hand with a purposeful slash. I saw how sick Adam was about it afterward and how everyone -- teammates, sportswriters, fans, officials -- tried to soothe him that it was just part of the game. Adam didn't buy that. He knew that the game's culture of violence had given him permission to go one step beyond. And he knew there wasn't much he could do about it, except try to control himself.

That's what leads me to believe that these players feel frozen in this macho expectation, and we need to thaw it out, help them chill.

One definite way is to charge Bertuzzi with a crime, assault with a deadly weapon. I don't think it matters whether or not he is convicted, but it's important that the twisted ethos of the NHL's version of a beautiful game be exposed in a real court.