Bertuzzi a product of hockey's culture

Updated: September 7, 2004, 2:53 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

The best and brightest minds in the NHL did the best they could in navigating the issues and elements relating to Todd Bertuzzi's contemptible hit on Steve Moore. In suspending Bertuzzi for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs, and opting to re-examine whether the punishment will still fit the crime when training camps reopen, the NHL has taken a huge step in the right direction in punishing such acts.

But it doesn't really matter.

What the NHL did is what the NHL always does in these circumstances: It denies the problem is systemic. It argues that such acts do not belong in the game, are not a part of its game and should never be considered part of the game.

But that's not true.

What Bertuzzi did to Moore -- seeking him out with the intent to physically harm him, and doing so from behind -- has been a part of hockey for as long as the game has existed. It's as much a part of the culture of the game as sticks and skates and pucks.

It's also, in very large part, a Canadian thing.

The second most widely reported lie you will read during the following months of in what is now the wretched life of Todd Bertuzzi is that what he did is not who he is or how he plays the game.

The fact is, it's very much a part of who he is and how he plays the game -- and it's been that way almost from the day he first laced up his skates. It's a part of the dirty side of hockey that has existed seemingly since it became an organized sport.

The NHL, which embraces and sometimes even sells violence as a part of the game, deserves some of the blame. Bertuzzi, unquestionably, deserves more than he will ever be able to admit.

But in a larger sense, so does every coach who has ever led a kid to believe that retribution is part of the game and ever parent who has never told a child otherwise. It extends to every member of every front office -- from the grass-roots level, to major junior and to the pros -- who has subscribed to Conn Smythe's adage "If you can't beat them in the alley, you can't beat them on the ice" and assembled their team to do both.

The blame even extends to a great many broadcasters and writers, on both sides of the border, who feed the beast.

So when Colin Campbell, the NHL's executive vice president for hockey operations, says, "All these things stand alone," it's almost laughable. Just having so many "things" defeats the every essence of his argument.

For the record, this isn't the first time Bertuzzi has showed poor judgment with his use of aggression. He broke the nose of defenseman Karlis Skrastins, a non-fighter who's yet to crack 50 minutes in penalties in a single season, last year. He's been suspended for hitting an official, who was breaking up a fight Bertuzzi wouldn't back down from. He left the bench to participate in an an altercation four games into the 2001-02 season and was suspended 10 games, a penalty that arguably cost him the scoring title.

But he isn't the only one. At the risk of being charged with stereotyping, Bertuzzi's behavior is typical of the hockey culture in Canada, a country that has long claimed the game as its own.

Look at the record.

The list is seemingly endless and Bertuzzi, a "good Canadian boy from Sudbury, Ontario," is only the most recent Canadian native to rise to the top of a rather lengthy list of infamous characters.

There is of course Marty McSorley, lauded for serving as Wayne Gretzky's personal bodyguard, who committed the last unforgivable "stand alone" cheap shot four years ago when he whacked Donald Brashear across the side of the head -- from behind -- in the very same arena where Bertuzzi incapacitated Moore. It was Dale Hunter who separated Pierre Turgeon's shoulder with a hit from behind in 1993 and received a 21-game suspension -- the longest ever at the time -- from new commissioner Gary Bettman.

Least we forget, Matt Johnson took out Jeff Beukeboom with a cheap shot that ultimately ended Beukeboom's career. And Canadian media darling Tie Domi did it not once (a flying elbow away from the play that KO'd Scott Niedermayer in the 2001 playoffs), but twice (a sucker-punch to the kisser of Ulf Samuelsson in 1995). For the latter, he earned an eight-game suspension and a pat on the back from players who'd been witnesses to Samuelsson's cheap shots.

Then there's Dave Brown's stick-to-the-throat on Tomas Sandstrom and Claude Lemieux's cheap-shot hit-from-behind on Kris Draper.

And we haven't even addressed the duels that caved in the occasional skull or two in the pre-Bettman era, in the days when men were really men.

The list goes on and on and, for the most part, it's been a good ol' Canadian boys who have headed the cheap-shot parade.

America has its share of dirty players, and certainly there are noteworthy Europeans who could be accused of the same, but clearly there is a trend here.

Canadians and, I suspect, the NHL itself will rail in protest at the charge, but not all of them.

"I am a Canadian and I'm proud of that, but I can't say you're wrong," said former New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith. "There's a mentality in some parts of Canada that this is the way hockey is and should be. You've seen it from (Canadian broadcaster) Don Cherry on 'Hockey Night in Canada' and from some others. It's endorsed as long as it's by some favored son of the Canadian game. But sooner or later it's going to end with someone's death. The culture of hockey, the longer it goes on, the inevitable result will be a death on the ice."

When you look at the numbers, you have to at least ask if there's some merit to the charge.

The NHL's top five leaders in career penalty minutes -- Tiger Williams, Hunter, McSorley, Bob Probert and Domi -- are all products of the Canadian system and have committed the very acts the NHL says isn't a part of its game.

Yes, Canadians have always comprised a higher percentage of NHL players (52.1 percent in 2003-04, down from 66.2 percent in 1992-93), but a significant number of other countries have been contributing an ever-growing number of players to the league and the vast majority of them simply don't play the game that way.

After all, how do you explain that of the top 15 leaders in penalty minutes, only two -- Krzysztof Oliwa of Poland and Zdeno Chara of the Czech Republic -- aren't products of Canada.

The reason is simple: It's not in their culture. The Russians of the '60s, '70s and '80s produced some of the most remarkable combinations of talent and toughness the game has ever seen, but none of them ever attempted to take someone's head off from behind, bulldog them face first into the ice and then attempt to deliver what could well have been a killer blow while their opponent lay helpless or unconscious.

Samuelsson might have been a poster boy for dirty European hockey, but I don't recall him ever hitting an opponent in the head with a stick from behind.

America also has a criminal element in many of its sports, but it seldom manifests itself on the playing surfaces of the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NBA. With a few notable exceptions, those despicable acts generally take place outside of the actual games, in large part because the leagues simply don't tolerate them.

It's different in hockey, especially in Canadian hockey.

In many ways Canada is the most civilized country on earth, but how many times have we seen a player applauded for on-ice antics that include "taking a guy out" or "making him pay," code words for vigilante justice in "their game."

In the NFL if a player takes an opponent out with a cheap shot, he is heavily penalized and the other team rewarded with field position. There might be lingering anger, but when was the last time you saw an offensive lineman cross the line of scrimmage and cold cock the offending linebacker in the back of the head?

Do we not witness, on a nightly basis, an NHL player who will hit an opponent after the whistle and be rewarded rather than penalized for it? He might get a warning from the on-ice officials once, twice or even three times in the course of a game, but in the end he emerges with praise for being an aggressive player who "plays the game the way it should be played."

Pity, however, the player who retaliates. He gets a penalty. And if he doesn't retaliate, he is rarely rewarded for taking the slap. He instead is looked upon as "soft." It's all a part of the culture of the game, one that rewards the bully and humiliates the victim.

If Bertuzzi's actions hadn't fractured vertebrae in Moore's neck, he'd have been an honored man in his locker room, the city of Vancouver and across all of Canada. Even now his apologists talk more about "poor Todd" than they do of the injured Moore.

After all, he was just sending a message.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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