- George Johnson, NHL
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CALGARY -- What, everyone wondered, would the initial reaction be?
Would they cheer?
Would they boo?
Might it turn ugly?
Were riot police at the ready, wielding truncheons and holding back rottweilers?
Whatever fears there may have been -- that Todd Bertuzzi's initial presence in a Calgary Flames uniform would have be met with something less than an, um, favorable response -- they were proven unfounded. Big Bert actually received a warm round of applause when introduced to the starting lineup in the team's opening preseason game at the Pengrowth Saddledome.
Not exactly ticker-tape-and-flowers, conquering-hero stuff (the decibel level paled in comparison to Jarome Iginla's intro), but the absence of abuse must have come as a welcome relief to freely perspiring Flames brass.
"The reception was nice," Bertuzzi said a few days later. "But at the same time, I'm not kidding myself. This is Iggy's team. "This is Dion's [Phaneuf] team.
"I'm just getting in the line behind them. What's a good year for me? A hundred points? I don't know about that I don't see many 100-point guys in the league anymore. Are they expecting 50 goals? Forty? Thirty? I don't think so. I think they're looking for leadership from me and to complement the other guys.
"Look, I came here for a fresh start, hoping to contribute. I just want to fit in."
Calgarians agree on a great many things. Conservative politics. Oil prices. Cowboy singing star Paul Brandt. An appetizing slab of Alberta beef. The deep-rooted distrust of the slick Eastern suits that reside on Bay Street in Toronto.
But when the big team in this town announced that it hitched its little (sea of) red wagon to the 33-year-old Bertuzzi, it instantly split the city in half.
Angry letters poured into the Calgary Herald, threatening to cancel season tickets. Knee-jerk posturing for the most part, naturally. But there was no denying a measure of outrage. Meanwhile, the pro-Flames faction -- who could find it in their hearts to locate a jersey for Attila the Hun if he'd help round out a decent second line -- focused only on what the old Bertuzzi, pre-Steve Moore scandal, could offer.
Whatever your take, Big Bert, the Ol' Cannoli Truck, is undoubtedly a major gamble for a franchise looking to end a three-year first-round-playoff-ouster streak. Make no mistake, 2008-09 is a decisive season for GM Darryl Sutter, the man behind the Bertuzzi signing, and coach Mike Keenan. All outstanding IOUs have been called in. It's put-up time.
Sure, it's only a one-year deal. The dollar figure, $1.95 million, isn't much in a $59 million cap world.
But factoring in all the demons of the past, Bertuzzi is a potential Pandora's Box of peril. Taking the continuing legal hassles out of it for a moment (Bertuzzi filed a lawsuit against former Canucks coach Marc Crawford, alleging the latter told the forward to go after Moore during that infamous game on March 8, 2004), the big lug hasn't averaged a point per game since 2002-03, and has been plagued the last few years by back and concussion problems.
As a Vancouver Canuck, every time he touched the puck at the Saddledome, abuse would rain down as if he were running for Liberal office, and this goes back to before the Moore incident. Add to that Bertuzzi's surly impatience with beady-eyed, fork-tongued media parasites (one pundit memorably wrote after interviewing Big Bert that "he looked at me as if I had head lice") in a city that hangs on every goal, hit and quote from September through April, and the potential for conflict is exponential.
"I played my best hockey in Canada under the microscope," he argued awhile back. "Maybe this will give me a little kick shot to get it going."
The Flames, intelligently, have gone out of their way to try to make Bertuzzi's transition as smooth as possible.
Iginla, as popular a person that can be found in the city, came out and publicly showed his support. In fact, the Flames held a separate conference call with their captain just to talk up Big Bert. Bertuzzi then made the front pages of both local papers, holding his son, Tag, putting a human face on the big, gruff bear.
And he's already been assigned the left-wing slot on the No. 1 line, alongside Iginla and center Daymond Langkow.
The former Toddzilla has noticeably slimmed down, arriving at camp 24 pounds lighter than during his heyday in Vancouver. (When asked the last time he was this light, Bertuzzi replied, to much laughter: "I think in midget. I had a good year then, too.")
"It's a big difference, but the league was way different back then," he explained. "It was clutch-and-grab. You could carry people around, throw them around. It's nothing like that anymore. You have to be quick and agile on your feet. You know what? It just seems [like that is] the way the NHL is going.
"You can only get so quick as a larger fellow. We'll give it a whirl and see how it goes. But everything feels good. Health feels good."
But can Todd Bertuzzi actually go from heel to hero? It'd be on the same level as the Grinch having dinner with the Whos down in Whoville after trying to trying to stop their Christmas from coming.
Well, the obligatory introductions are out of the way. So far, so good.
"I'm sure in the first 60 minutes, Todd had a lot on his mind, besides playing with Jarome, [such as] getting into the swing of things here in Canada," Keenan said. "We appreciate the fact that he was given a strong reception. I'm sure he's more comfortable now.
"Playing with a new team, new teammates -- not just Jarome -- takes a while to make the adjustment. He's capable of doing that because of his skill set, his experience."
The goodwill can shift, and swiftly -- say, after eight or 10 games with no goals to start the season.
What can make all Calgarians learn to love Todd Bertuzzi? Well, he isn't being brought in to kiss babies or act as Calgary Stampede parade marshal. But people can forgive a lot -- almost anything, in fact -- if you deliver the goods.
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.