Commentary

How can you view Bertuzzi's recent signing as anything but a risk?

Updated: July 11, 2008, 3:35 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Todd Bertuzzi has bad karma.

All other ramifications of Bertuzzi's actions aside, that's the major reason Calgary Flames GM Darryl Sutter's decision to sign him to a one-year deal this week is risky, hard to justify and likely destined to go down as counterproductive.

Ever since March 8, 2004, when Bertuzzi delivered a cheap shot on Steve Moore at General Motors Place, nothing has been the same.

Todd Bertuzzi
Debora Robinson/Getty ImagesTodd Bertuzzi had 14 goals in 68 games last season with the Anaheim Ducks.
Vancouver didn't make the playoffs in 2005-06.

The Canadian Olympic team didn't medal in Italy during the 2006 Games. Bertuzzi took an interference penalty in the third period of a scoreless game against Russia in the quarterfinals, leading to the Alexander Ovechkin power-play goal that turned out to be all the winners needed before the Canadians went home without having scored in three of their final four games.

Bertuzzi missed much of the 2006-07 regular season because of a back problem and surgery, but after recuperating, he went from Florida to Detroit at the trading deadline and was underwhelming as the loaded Red Wings lost to the Ducks in the Western Conference finals.

After rejoining former Canucks GM Brian Burke in Anaheim, Bertuzzi was part of a first-round exit against the Stars.

And now, after Burke decided the Ducks would buy out the second year of the two-year, $8 million deal he gave Bertuzzi a year ago, citing salary-cap issues, the Flames are the latest to give the big winger a shot. They signed him to a one-year, $1.95 million contract.

Now, the above notwithstanding, I'm going to try to be fair.

By the end of the season, it will have been five years since Bertuzzi sucker punched the Colorado Avalanche's Moore, then 25, from behind, drove him into the ice, and tried to keep punching as Colorado center Andrei Nikolishin joined the pile and attempted to pin Bertuzzi's arms.

It will have been five years since the Canadian news magazine, Maclean's, ran a picture of the attack on the cover and used it as a jumping-off point for a searing examination of some of North American hockey's lingering old-school attitudes, including elements of, ahem, "The Code." It wasn't a case of media types, whether it was sports columnists or cable-news pundits, who otherwise never pay attention to hockey, jumping into the fray and hoping they pronounced Bertuzzi's name correctly, as happened in the U.S. It was a respected national magazine, presumably with an office full of hockey fans, focusing on the issue.

Five years.

It's been so long, a producer could have commissioned a script, shot a film on location in Vancouver (perhaps using some "X-Files" sets), released it to theaters and then on DVD, and now have used copies going for $0.99 U.S. on eBay.

Even in Denver, where Bertuzzi in theory will play three times in the upcoming season and continue to draw boos, about the only folks who won't let this go are the media and some fans, because the Avalanche organization and the few players remaining moved on, so to speak, about 18 hours after the incident.

The NHL's only concern about Bertuzzi is whether Moore's lawsuit ever goes to trial in Ontario. Despite the long delay, plus all the movement, firings, retirements and other changes that have affected those who might be called to the witness stand, a trial would be embarrassing -- or worse -- for the league. The only way the lawsuit will go to trial, or especially be heard in its entirety, is if both sides draw lines in the sand in a game of legal bluffing, and end up having it become more than bluffing.

Every time someone in my profession writes about this, the reaction runs the gamut of extremes, from expressions of outrage that any sane person could accept anything but Bertuzzi being suspended for life (or at least until Moore was cleared to play), to views that Bertuzzi gave Moore a love pat with a glove to the helmet, or Moore had it coming under Article 2, Clause 4, Subparagraph 3 of "The Code" and Bertuzzi only got a bit carried away and has been persecuted enough. (Of course, there also is the inevitable kicker that anyone who doesn't agree with those positions doesn't know the color of the blue line, ignoring the fact that by far the most intelligent debate about all of this has taken place in the land where infants learn the words "blue" and "offside" at the same time.)

There is a vast and reason-based middle ground, including those who are ambivalent about any incident which happened in a professional sports competition ending up in a court of law, both because North American courts have better things to do and there is an implied consent involved with playing professionally. And while Bertuzzi clearly is the most culpable, his actions were a reflection -- in a distorted way -- of isolated elements of the sport's culture that involve a lot more than one player. Others, including Markus Naslund, Brian Burke and Marc Crawford, could have said, "Enough."

(That's my view.)

Since that night, Bertuzzi's reputation for brooding has been enhanced. Moore's lawsuit has made it impractical for him to address anything involved with that night, so a complete mea culpa and acceptance of blame -- one that goes beyond that tearful first news conference -- has been all but impossible. But Bertuzzi still has been a dark cloud, even within the Canucks' room during the remainder of his tenure there, and you had to wonder what the reflective Teemu Selanne, who was as offended as any member of the Avalanche about what happened that night, thought of having Bertuzzi as a teammate in Anaheim after returning at the midway point of last season.

Of course, Bertuzzi's response would have been: "It is what it is." (For helping popularize that phrase alone, Bertuzzi deserves ingratitude.)

He's only 33. Despite the back surgery, it wouldn't be out of line to think he has some prime years left as an elite power forward. Yet he hasn't been the same player since that 2004 night and scored only 14 goals for the Ducks last season. Burke, who has reasons to feel attached to Bertuzzi, couldn't justify juggling resources around enough to find room for Bertuzzi under the cap for another season.

It would have made marginally more sense for an Eastern Conference team to sign him.

Change the scenery and try to change the karma.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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