Commentary

Bertuzzi can't escape past, but he sees a future in Anaheim

Updated: September 30, 2007, 4:04 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

LONDON -- In the world of sport, redemption is strong currency.

Pro athletes are exalted as they ascend and just as quickly vilified and demonized when they fall.

Sometimes, if they're lucky, those fallen athletes get another chance, a chance to escape from under the rubble of their own misdeeds. And as the media and fans follow the ups and downs, it's the up-off-the-mat saga that always plays best.

And so it is that Todd Bertuzzi, perhaps the most demonized of NHL players of the modern era, sits contentedly in his dressing room stall here in London, surrounded by his new Anaheim Ducks teammates, looking somehow like a man who may well have walked away from his own rubble.

Todd Bertuzzi
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty ImagesTodd Bertuzzi's stint in South Florida was not a happy one.

"There's naysayers about our team and there's naysayers about him and what he's got left in the tank," offered Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger. "It's a way for him to shove it where the sun don't shine and show people what he's still got left, the type of player he can still be.

"I know guys are excited to have him on the team. We heard nothing but great things about him when he played in Detroit last year. Reputations follow people around a long time, that's why people deserve second chances," Pronger added. "When you go through the situations that he's gone through, you grow up a lot and you get a different outlook on life.''

Bertuzzi is not quite jovial -- that's a little like suggesting a cactus can be cuddly; but certainly this Todd Bertuzzi is at ease. Why?

"It's because I'm not being asked the same questions every single day. Monday to Sunday, every single day of the week," Bertuzzi told a small clutch of reporters here. "If I asked you the same question every day, how would you deal with it? I do not have 15 different answers for the same question. I just don't. There's no way to deal with it. It feels great now, not to hear about it every day."

For Bertuzzi, it will never be about forgiveness. Many, from Steve Moore and his family on down, will never forgive Bertuzzi for his attack on the then-Colorado Avalanche forward in March 2004, an attack that likely ended Moore's career and saw Bertuzzi suspended and charged with assault. Moore's lawsuit against Bertuzzi and the Canucks' ownership is pending in Ontario.

It's not about forgetting. As monstrous as Bertuzzi's actions were, as monstrous as he's been made out to be in many circles since, he will live with the horror of that act forever. That is a fact.

For the 32-year-old who, for a brief moment, was considered one of the most dominant forwards in the game, it is about stepping out of a shadow. Even on this day, the past creeps into the conversation briefly with a couple of questions that Bertuzzi stonily ignores.

"Anything else? Anyone want to ask anything about the game?" Bertuzzi asked.

A season ago, the same themes were being played out in South Florida, where Bertuzzi was hoping for a fresh start with the Panthers after being acquired by Florida GM Mike Keenan for goalie Roberto Luongo.

By the time the season began, Keenan had been fired and Bertuzzi played just seven regular-season games before back problems forced him to the sidelines. The Detroit Red Wings took a flier on Bertuzzi before the trade deadline. Despite the long layoff and recurring pain, Bertuzzi was a useful member of the Wings, playing in 16 postseason contests, collecting seven points and averaging 14:24 in ice time. The Wings were interested in keeping the big forward, but term and money were an issue. So, Bertuzzi and agent Pat Morris called Anaheim GM Brian Burke to see if there was interest.

Burke responded with a two-year deal worth $8 million. It's a deal that's been widely characterized as a high-risk venture for the bold GM.

"The speculation in the media that this is a big gamble, we don't see it that way," Burke said on Thursday. "I'm much more comfortable with Todd because I had him as a player and I know his character.

If I asked you the same question every day, how would you deal with it? I do not have 15 different answers for the same question. I just don't. There's no way to deal with it. It feels great now, not to hear about it every day.

--Todd Bertuzzi on being asked about the Steve Moore incident

"Our doctors, when he passed his physical, said there is no health issue there that they're worried about. He hasn't played at this weight since he was 17. I know this player; I'm not worried about him fitting in and I'm not worried about what he can do on the ice."

As for the suggestion that he committed $8 million to Bertuzzi because he liked him or felt sorry for him or had lost his mind, Burke says he is more practical than that.

"I have good relationships with players who produce, and players who work, and he did that for me," Burke said. "This is a player who's produced and worked his tail off for me. A first-team All-Star and a 100-point player. And we certainly weren't the only team that tried to sign him."

It is, of course, far too early to suggest how this drama might play out in California. But there are signs that the script may be different than a year ago.

"All Todd Bertuzzi has done is, he's come in here and worked his butt off and has been anything but a true professional," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "He's been everything that you'd ask. He has been no distraction whatsoever. He's trying to fit in."

Physically, there has been a dramatic change. Carlyle said Bertuzzi has shed more than 20 pounds, going from 245-250 pounds to about 230, and his skating has reflected that. Bertuzzi said shedding the extra baggage, at least physically, was a no-brainer.

"I think it was just a matter of time," Bertuzzi said. "I think after you go through a year of having surgery and having back problems, I think maybe carrying the 245 and 250 around maybe took its toll on it. So I thought I'd try a new route and see if I can stay healthy. Knock on wood, it's actually been a blessing.

"If anything, I think it's better; I'm more mobile. Let's face it -- the league is getting quicker and quicker. These kids coming up are faster and faster -- and big. I think you either change with the times or you get lost in the shuffle."

The Ducks are hoping Bertuzzi will become a straight-line player, using his speed and size to create offense through the neutral zone, driving the net, playing in high-traffic areas in and around the opposing goal.

"He has that offensive flare that he can do things, but through the neutral ice, we want straight-out speed," Carlyle said. "We want to play a north-south game, and if you look at his history at times, probably playing with [Markus] Naslund, [the Vancouver Canucks] were more of an east-west. We don't play that type of hockey. We play straight up and down, and he has the ability to use his power and use his skill to play north-south hockey, and that's all we're asking."

As for somehow wanting to repay the faith Burke has shown in him, Bertuzzi said it's what drives him.

"With that comes the pressure to perform. I think it's something that I need," Bertuzzi said. "There's nothing better to have a little pressure on you to go out and perform. Obviously, I'm fortunate that there was an opening on a Stanley Cup roster for me. So I've got to go there and make the best of it and play hard."

Bertuzzi likely will start the season playing with emerging young star Ryan Getzlaf, who was the Ducks' best forward in last season's playoffs. That's a good fit. But the fit for Bertuzzi will always be more about a mental fit. In Anaheim, he returns to a GM who believes in him and to a room that includes one of his closest friends, Bray May.

"Honestly, no mistaking this, we're very, very good friends," May said. "Our families are very close, and the children. I was a happy guy when I heard that [he'd signed in Anaheim]. It's great. He's a hell of a hockey player and he's going to show it."

Does Bertuzzi appear to be a different person?

"The only thing I can say is, adversity builds character," May said. "It's great we're now teammates again for the third time. And we both have a goal in mind, and that's obviously to be the last team playing again. It's going to be difficult and there's going to be a lot of challenges, but that's our dream and that's our goal and, boy, would it be fun if we can do it. And I say 'we,' 25 of us, because his teammates have embraced him and everybody in this locker room is excited to have him here. It's not just about him."

Maybe for the first time in a long time, that's exactly true.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.