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Monday, September 30, 2002
Updated: October 4, 12:10 PM ET
Force of Nature

By By Eric Adelson


The folks at La Parma II keep table 43 open just in case Mr. Clark Gillies shows up. The Islanders' Hall of Fame wing loves to pop in at the Huntington, Long Island, restaurant for a veal chop and broccoli rabe. His table sits in the back, on the right, far from the kitchen. It seats eight. But on a fall day in 1996, Gillies brought only one guest.

Todd Bertuzzi shifted nervously as the legend chatted up the afternoon wait staff. The Gotham media had already labeled Bertuzzi -- the Isles' 225-pound, first-round pick in 1993 -- the next Clark Gillies. Everyone agreed the 19-year-old rookie had the size and the strength of No. 9, but not the grit. Coach Mike Milbury wanted Bertuzzi to add "a little more vinegar," and Gillies stepped in to deliver the message over oil and garlic.

Gillies looked across the table at Bertuzzi and told him to pick an opposing player and run him. "Kick the piss out of him," he said. That oughta give the kid a rep and some room, Gillies thought. "If you're built like a freight train," Gillies said, "don't drive around like a Volkswagen."

Milbury's idea backfired. Bertuzzi spent the next two seasons avoiding the corners and getting pushed around by smaller players. His goals dropped from 18 in his rookie season to 10 to 7. In 1998, at a postgame cocktail party, Gillies walked over to Bertuzzi just to say hi. As Gillies recalls, Bertuzzi's wife, Julie, cut him off, looked up at him and said, "Can't you just leave him alone?"

***

Four years later and now in Vancouver, Todd Bertuzzi is what Gillies and Milbury imagined: the premier power forward in the NHL. Last season he led the league in points per game (1.18). Then it took two Norris Trophy finalists on the Stanley Cup-winning Red Wings to rub him out of the playoffs. He is 270 pounds with his gear on. He has less than 10% body fat. He runs a 4.5 40. He can double-shift for 60 minutes without losing his legs. And his hands are Downy soft.

Bertuzzi is a football player on skates -- a hard-headed Goliath with an attitude who is on the verge of redefining his position the way Shaq has in that other winter sport. "He is Jaromir Jagr," says Carolina's Jeff O'Neill, "except with more size ... and more speed." On a young team adorned with imported, well, Volkswagens, he is a runaway Canadian Pacific freight train. Yet somehow, a lot of very successful hockey people -- including his own coach -- didn't see it coming.

The ingredients were always there. Todd Bertuzzi was born in 1975 into a Sudbury, Ont., family long on strength and short on temper. Albert Bertuzzi is a 53-year-old Italian-Canadian with a center of gravity like a medicine ball and a head as hard as an I-beam. He is 6'2", 215, and some say he looks younger than Todd. This is the son of a miner who rose to the top of an Ontario window-washing company because of his immense strength. While buddies would collapse their ladders before moving them to the next building, Albert Bertuzzi just picked up 40 feet of metal and slung it over his shoulder. When Todd was a teenager, a car wreck launched Albert headfirst through a windshield and 150 feet into the air. Paramedics could not believe what they found: a man with broken legs and fingers but no damage to his head or back.

Albert decided early on that his boy would play hockey and play it hard. He put Todd on a frozen lake in Sudbury and called him inside only for dinner. Albert was proud of his own local rep as a "dirty player." As he says, "It's a Bertuzzi trait. We're just very aggressive." Todd showed that side as soon as he could walk. "He was such a little hell-raiser," says his former babysitter, Rachelle Lotoski. "His two little sisters would be on the couch doing my hair, and he would come home mad and take the brush away." Once, Todd got a snowmobile for his seventh birthday. The next day, he plowed it into the side of the family garage. By age 15, he stood 6'2", 195. At the rink, he terrified opponents, and teammates as well.

Even junior teams were skittish. "We had a few maturity issues with Todd," says Marc Crawford, then GM of the OHL's Cornwall Raiders. "He was a big kid who hadn't grown into his body yet. Sometimes there's a lot of stress that goes with that." At the league draft, Crawford chose a kid named Larry Courville over Bertuzzi, and then watched as Todd leaned over to his dad and whispered: "I'll show them." Bertuzzi has done just that. Crawford is now his coach at Vancouver.

Bertuzzi went to Guelph, where he lost his temper on a nightly basis -- "every time he went out it was an experience," says Albert -- but improved his point production each season until he shredded the league with 54 goals in 62 games his fourth and final year. That was good enough for the Isles, who drafted him with the 23rd pick in 1993.

The comparisons to Gillies came quick and easy. A wing this size rarely shows up in the NHL. What fans and media did not understand was that Gillies himself became a force on the ice only after Islander teammate Bobby Nystrom had challenged him. But Gillies never told Bertuzzi that. Instead, he stumbled upon Bertuzzi's one major weakness. "Todd's not one to take criticism," says Albert. "It doesn't motivate him. It turns him away. He has to be stroked." Even now, years later, comparisons to Gillies sting. "No disrespect to him," Bertuzzi says. "But I'm a different person. He won four Cups. I've won diddly-squat." Tired of being the next Clark Gillies, Todd marched into Milbury's office and asked for a trade. "I'll do you one better," Milbury snapped. "I'll trade you to the minors."

That was the low point in Bertuzzi's career. He did his time with the Utah Grizzlies (13 games) and stumbled through another worthless season on Long Island before getting his wish: a trade to Vancouver in February 1998. "He couldn't get there quick enough," Albert says.

Waiting for him was the demanding Mike Keenan, who saw an oversized man with an undersized self-esteem. "He had dealt with a certain level of rejection," says Keenan (now coaching the Panthers). "There were unrealistic expectations, and he put a great deal of pressure on his own game. I tried to get him to understand it wasn't going to happen overnight."

Keenan was right. Power forwards need more than strength and a mean streak; they need time. Just look at the history of the position. Power forwards -- those among the top 50 in goals and the top 75 in penalty minutes -- are largely Canadian and late-blooming. Bertuzzi's hero, Cam Neely (Comox, B.C.), couldn't break the 40-point barrier in Vancouver in his two years there. The Canucks traded him to Boston -- in perhaps the most lopsided deal in NHL history -- where he averaged 80 over his next five seasons. Gary Roberts (North York, Ont.) spent three years under the 40-point barrier before breaking out with 72 points in 1989-90. Rick Vaive (Ottawa, Ont.) did not score 50 goals in a season until his fourth year in the league. John LeClair (St. Albans, Vt. -- just across the border) scored 47 goals in four campaigns with Montreal before averaging more than 44 over the next four years in Philly. Even Gillies (Moose Jaw, Sask.) averaged 54 points his first three seasons before scoring 85 and 91 in his fourth and fifth. And none of those guys weighed as much as Bertuzzi with their gear on -- or could move as fast. "I knew it was always there," Bertuzzi says. "It just took me longer."

It took Bertuzzi even more time to control his emotions. On Long Island, hockey consumed him. He'd come home after games and watch replays until after midnight. He'd gnash his teeth with every error and stare at the ceiling until 5 a.m. The chants of "Boo-tuzzi" made him hate going to the rink. He needed a distraction. He got a few of them.

***

Three years ago, Todd and Julie had a baby girl, Jaden. A year and a half later they produced a boy, Tag. Since then, Bertuzzi hasn't had time to dwell on hockey. "I come home and there's another life going on," Bertuzzi says. "When I was with my wife alone, it was difficult at times." Bertuzzi also saw himself in his son. Tag -- no surprise -- already has a bit of an attitude. This summer he grabbed another infant in a headlock and swatted him with a plastic golf club. Suddenly, Todd's own outbursts seemed, well, childish. "Having a family will do that to you pretty quickly," says Albert. "He's a father now so he has to set an example."

There is one other blanket on Bertuzzi's smoldering anger -- golf. Tormented by his 10-game suspension last season, Bertuzzi got into his white Navigator one night and went to the driving range. He came back a different person.

"I told my wife I couldn't believe how relaxed I was," Bertuzzi says. Since then, he has hit balls the night before every game.

Golf also gave him some perspective. Six years ago, when his misery on Long Island was at its peak, he had a tantrum on the 16th hole of his home golf course in Kitchener, Ont. He came to the tee at a blistering 1-under (he plays to a 5 handicap), then deposited his drive in the drink. Bertuzzi began to seethe. He dropped a ball behind the pond and promptly flubbed another into the water. At that point, Bertuzzi took his gap wedge and jettisoned it into the soup. Then he realized what he had done, and he waded into the water after his favorite club. That's when three middle-aged men in a group behind him noticed the enormous guy in up to his chest, fishing around for his club with a rake. They didn't know he was an NHL player; they just pointed and laughed.

Those three guys are now Bertuzzi's best friends. All are a few years older, even-tempered and married. Bertuzzi even asked one of them -- Jeff Maslanka -- to be his personal trainer. "I worked out on my own for years," Bertuzzi reasons. "I wanted somebody to show up at my house so I'd have no choice." Maslanka realized that Bertuzzi didn't need any weight training -- "he builds muscle mass just walking by a bench press," Maslanka says -- so this summer he put Bertuzzi through a workout of running 40s, 80s and 200s, followed by football drills including receiver out-patterns and backpedaling. Then he had Bertuzzi run up 52 rows of bleachers -- first with both feet, then hopping, then with Maslanka on his back. Maslanka even challenged Bertuzzi to hours of badminton for hand-eye coordination. The result: Bertuzzi, who has missed parts of every season with injuries, is in the best shape of his life. "I see him overtaking Markus Naslund as the player with the most minutes this year," says Crawford. "He'll push 24 and 25 minutes some games. He can handle it." A wing of Bertuzzi's size getting that kind of ice time every night is almost unheard of.

But then again, a wing with Bertuzzi's talent is almost unheard of. Which is why his suspension hit the Canucks so hard. In a 4-0 win over the Avalanche last Oct. 13, Bertuzzi was on the bench when Colorado coach Bob Hartley sent enforcer Scott Parker onto the ice during a delayed penalty. Parker attacked Vancouver blueliner Ed Jovanovski. Bertuzzi had a split-second choice to make: Am I a punisher or a point-producer? Once again, his temper took over. Bertuzzi leapt the dasher and pounced on Parker. The choice cost him 10 games and $118,557 in lost salary. Bertuzzi was unbearable during the suspension, as he helplessly watched his team go 361. "He was really an angry guy," says Maslanka. "Just mad at the world."

Ask Bertuzzi if he regrets the decision to leave the bench, and he'll say no. But ask him if he'd do it again, and he'll also say no. Something changed during Bertuzzi's exile. He realized he is just as indispensable at the rink as he had become at home. And as soon as he returned to the ice, the fire that burned inward exploded into stunning goals and board-rattling hits. He became the most dominating player in the NHL -- going on a 15-game scoring streak and finishing third in the league with 85 points (36 goals, 49 assists). More tellingly, he ended the year at plus-21 after coming into the season at a career minus-60. "He really made a statement," says linemate Brendan Morrison. "He always showed tons of potential, but he wasn't consistent with it." Now he had family, friends and focus. Bertuzzi finally became Toddzilla.

***

On a cool August day among the shadowy mountains of British Columbia, Todd Bertuzzi drives 20 minutes from the Canucks' practice rink to the Richmond Country Club. His front nine is atrocious. His f-bombs outnumber his fairways hit two to one. He bogeys No.1, then hangs his second drive into the woods. "I hate this course!" he screams before taking his driver above his head like an ax and slamming the clubhead down onto the tee box, leaving a crater he doesn't bother to fix. On No. 7 he begins talking to himself as he steps to the tee. "I know what you're going to do, Bert," he says. "You're going to duck-hook it." Bertuzzi swings and watches the ball veer horribly left almost as soon as it leaves the club. He goes out in 48.

But then, suddenly, Mr. Sunshine comes out. Bertuzzi pars 11 with a blistering 260-yard draw, then launches into a parody of Eminem: "Bertie's back, back again. Bertie's back, tell a friend." He pars the next two and then croons the Gilligan's Island theme. By the 16th he's giving lessons in cow tipping, and a small gallery has gathered on the fringes of the fairway. They follow him to 17, where he nails a drive dead solid perfect. Bertuzzi gets into his cart and rides slowly down the fairway. After saying almost nothing about hockey all afternoon, he suggests he can lead the league in scoring. "There's more," he says quietly. "A lot more."

With that, he pulls out a wedge and sticks it 25 feet from the hole. Moments later, he crouches over the ball and snakes in the putt for his first birdie of the day. He nods and lets out a full-throated laugh -- also his first of the day.

Todd Bertuzzi is only 27. When the puck drops next month, he will have an MVP-caliber linemate in Naslund (and another emerging star in C Morrison), a team that was the league's hottest in the second half last year, and all the ice time he craves. "He can do whatever he wants," says teammate Mike Brown, "whenever he wants to." Bertuzzi even has a locally popular song about him:

He's spinning all around getting everybody woozy
He's 245, it looks like the Watusi
I said Uh Uh it's called the Todd Bertuzzi.


And then there's the new tune being sung about Bertuzzi back on Long Island. Clark Gillies actually showed up to watch the next Clark Gillies play against the Islanders last season. He could hardly believe what he saw. "I was like, 'Wow!'" Gillies says. "Is that the same kid who was here? He was by far the best player on the ice. Scary how he just manhandled people. It was awesome."

Then Gillies pauses for a moment and laughs. "He can do things I couldn't do at his age," he says.

"I bet Milbury wishes he had him now."

This article appears in the October 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.