NHL's latest problem: Foul-weather critics

Updated: March 12, 2004, 11:25 AM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

That's Gary Bettman at the end of the bar, head in hands and pointed straight down, a conga line of boilermakers in front of him. There's no spinning out of the way of this one, and he knows it.

Star Jones and Joy Behar are talking about Todd Bertuzzi, for God's sake, and that a circle of Hell nobody imagined possible.

I mean, everyone understands one guy coming up behind another and sucker-punching him into unconsciousness. It's an easy visual to replay in your head -- Steve Moore goes limp, plummets face-first onto the ice, breaks his neck. One punch, a horrifying outcome. Why, it's the perfect break from BALCO.

And yet, nobody seemed to mind last Friday night when the Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers engaged in what only can be called a serial brawl.

The two teams, both vying for the illusory benefits of a better seed among Eastern Conference teams in the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs, broke the league record for penalty minutes with 416. They were so relentlessly cranky that it took the referees, Marc Joannette and Dan Marouelli, a good 90 minutes just to get the penalties squared away for the box scores.

But that's just the box score -- 6 inches of felonious intent.

What really happened here were all-out bar fights with 1:45 left to play, 1:42 left to play, 1:39 left to play, 1:15 left to play, and 1:13 left to play. Sixteen players were ejected, and ...

... and everyone was cool with it. Hockey players being hockey players.

The difference? Martin Havlat didn't get hurt Friday night, but Steve Moore did on Monday.

This is not to trivialize Bertuzzi's attack on Moore, especially since he had three weeks to think about it. Moore had drilled Vancouver's Markus Naslund in a game in February, and the two teams had played a game since then without overt incident five days earlier.

Bertuzzi lost the rest of his season, as he should have. And frankly, he's lucky it isn't worse. Assuming that the Vancouver P.D. will pass on charging Bertuzzi, the expected work stoppage that will bite a huge hole in next year's season will mean that people will have a long time to forget both men, and the incident that links them.

But selective outrage is a troubling thing. Cowardice, which is the essence of the sucker-punch, is a considerable vice, deserving of all the public opprobrium it is receiving. Then again, so is 40 guys spending an hour clubbing each other without anyone being bothered.

And this is why Bettman is sitting by the Chex Mix and the juke box, wondering if he can get his résumé photocopied without anyone at the office noticing.

It's not just that Todd Bertuzzi has come to represent the NHL the same way Marty McSorley did when he brained Donald Brashear with a stick four years ago. It's not just that the strike/lockout that awaits the sport is going to be a disaster for everyone involved.

It's that people who normally don't pay attention to hockey suddenly are, and hockey purists hate it. At a time when the game's market is shrinking, to attract a new set of interested parties and then to find out that they are utterly horrified is, well, not part of the grand corporate plan.

After all, when your defense against the Meredith Vieiras and Barbara Walterses of the world is, "Well, you should've seen the Kings-Ducks game two weeks ago," you've got problems that even a gallon of eight-year-old Hair O'The Schnauzer isn't going to help.

L'Affaire Bertuzzi is symptomatic of a little-known problem hockey has with television. It actually is easier for the casual observer to absorb a single blow than a parade of fistfights. You cannot effectively reduce the Ottawa-Philly brawl into a single visual, unless the Patrick Lalime-Robert Esche goalie dance strikes your fancy.

And that's mostly for comic effect anyway. Two men with divans strapped to their legs trying to land wild and barely coordinated blows upon each other -- you've done that at least once in your life, and at your uncle's wake.

The Ottawa-Philadelphia game should have been an embarrassment for the NHL, because it was, well, pointless and stupid and antithetical to the idea of the playoff drive. But nobody south or west of Detroit much noticed, or cared.

Call it a bullet dodged.

But only for a few days. Bertuzzi's blow caught the general public at the wrong time, and in the wrong mood. Because one easy-to-see punch counts for more than 200, and one second counts more than 3,600, there is no defense to be raised, not even "It was an isolated incident."

In fact, the big discussion within hockey circles was the traditional "Keep the cops out of it" stance last expressed when McSorley took out Brashear. The fear the league and its defenders have is that one good felony investigation will embolden police in other jurisdictions to begin examining things like the Ottawa-Philly game, and draw far more chilling conclusions than "Boys will be dancing bears sometimes."

And at that point, "Hockey Night at The View" will seem like a charity event.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com