Near the end of a Vancouver Canucks practice last week, Markus Naslund playfully shot a puck that struck Todd Bertuzzi on the ankle, which meant that Bertuzzi had to shoot a puck at Naslund's ankle, which led to some serious face-to-face jawing, which led to Naslund's grazing Bertuzzi's chin with the butt end of his stick, which led to...nothing. The minor contretemps was noted in The Vancouver Sun, but it was as newsworthy as a forecast of rain in the Pacific Northwest. For the NHL's No. 1 line of wings Naslund and Bertuzzi and center Brendan Morrison, it was just another day, another holler. � They operate in the dressing-room universe of verbal shots, sarcasm and horseplay, tormenting each other with fervor and affection. Nothing is sacred, including Morrison's prematurely receding hairline and his can't-break-a-pane-of-glass slap shot. No one has to offer a penny for their thoughts, although Morrison said earlier in the season, on the Canucks' plane, that Bertuzzi would take the coin because he's "so cheap his wallet must be an onion—he weeps every time he takes it out." Bertuzzi responded by putting Morrison in what he calls a "death grip," but that didn't compare to a wrestling match Bertuzzi had with Naslund on a plane. The three behave like the brothers none of them has. Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi—in the absence of a nickname, let's call them the Brotherhood—have turned the NHL into their personal rec room.
The line's shifts are routinely entertaining, hardly a surprise considering that in the calendar year 2002 Bertuzzi, a power forward, led the NHL with 102 points; Naslund, a superb finisher, was No. 1 in the league with 48 goals; and Morrison, the passer, had 76 points, the 10th-best total. Their moments on the bench are no less captivating. They sit together, heads bobbing, tongues wagging, hands cutting the air in serpentine sweeps, animatedly deconstructing their last 45 seconds on the ice. "They bicker and bicker," says Canucks wing Trent Klatt. " 'I want the puck on my stick,' and 'Put it here,' and 'Why didn't you go there?' " On occasion they are told to pipe down by coach Marc Crawford.
Morrison bears the brunt of the abuse from linemates in his role as the kid brother (at 27 he is six months younger than Bertuzzi and two years Naslund's junior), the center and the trio's newcomer. Most NHL lines start with a center and a complementary winger, but the Brotherhood is an anomaly, built from the wings in, like the Paul Kariya- Teemu Selanne line for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the late 1990s. Naslund and Bertuzzi have been together for more than two years; Morrison joined them on Jan. 9, 2002, which seems like a century ago in the NHL because lines are routinely blown up weekly. Morrison had been languishing on the wing, but with oft-injured No. 1 center Andrew Cassels a free-agent-to-be, Vancouver needed a more permanent option. Morrison is not as deft a passer as Cassels, but he's quicker and a more dangerous shooter, a trait that does not always please his puck-hungry wingers, who have combined for 404 points in the past 2� seasons, more than any other two linemates in the NHL.
"I give Mo a lot of credit," Naslund says. "It's not the easiest job to play with me and Todd. He has to get us the puck and do the defensive work down low that's expected of a centerman. He's not afraid to shoot. He likes to use his slapper"—pause, smile—"even if it doesn't break 75 miles per hour."
Naslund is the most unheralded star in the NHL, a slasher who finds seams better than anyone but the Detroit Red Wings' Brett Hull. From the start of the 2000-01 season through Sunday, Naslund led all left wings with 109 goals—29 more than Kariya, 66 more than John LeClair of the Philadelphia Flyers, 24 more than Keitli Tkachuk of the St. Louis Blues—and had a better all-around game than those highly touted players. Naslund and the Dallas Stars' Bill Guerin were the only players with at least 40 goals in each of the last two seasons; Naslund, who led the NHL with 28 at week's end, was on pace for 57 in '02-03-
"He's been the best player in the league the past couple of years—by far," Bertuzzi says of Naslund. "We don't have a payroll like Dallas or the New York Rangers. We can't surround him with big-salary guys. We've had to work from the bottom up. His accomplishment is bringing this team to where it is now." (Despite a low $32 million payroll—the Brotherhood earns a combined $9.4 million, only $670,000 more than Guerin does—Vancouver led the Northwest Division with a 24-11-5-0 record.)
This insight into the Canucks' dynamics is hardly stunning, except for the fact that it comes from Bertuzzi, a 6'3", 240-pound man-child with quick feet and soft hands who never has been considered the brains of an outfit. He is the rambunctious middle son, the one who punches his brothers on the shoulder a little too hard. But the man in him dominates the child most days. Bertuzzi did not awake one morning and decide to abandon his rash, sometimes destructive ways, but the consensus of those around him is that the automatic 10-game suspension he served early in 2001-02, for leaving the bench during a brawl, helped him refocus. The other defining moment in his maturation occurred away from the headlines. Vancouver G.M. Brian Burke traded wing Donald Brashear to Philadelphia in December 2001, and the card games in the back of the Canucks' plane were no longer as much fun for Bertuzzi. Soon after, he plopped himself next to Naslund near the front of the plane. Now, when they're not smacking each other with pillows, they're talking about cars or their young children or, sometimes, their demanding hockey fathers. In walking 30 feet forward, Bertuzzi traveled light-years.
"When I came into the league I said that I never wanted to be here five or 10 years and not be acknowledged," Bertuzzi said last Friday. "I didn't want to be the Average Joe who plays, retires and then is forgotten. I'm in a situation in which I can accomplish things—Markus has made me a more patient player. Before, I'd want to get the puck off my stick as soon as possible. Markus saw me differently, as a guy with skill. Now I'm holding onto the puck, using the extra second to do something creative."
Bertuzzi and Naslund are disparate men with different styles who play opposite wings, but they are related through something more powerful than blood: failure. "All three of us are castoffs," says Morrison, who was acquired from the New Jersey Devils in March 2000 for two-time 50-plus-goal wing Alexander Mogilny, which is not the same as being dealt for a bag of pucks. Morrison's big brothers, however, were spectacular first-round flameouts. Naslund grew up as the hockey equal of Peter Forsberg in their hometown of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, but he stumbled after being picked 16th in the 1991 draft by Pittsburgh. In the worst trade in NHL history, the Penguins swapped him in '96 for goon Alek Stojanov, who finished his 107-game NHL career with two goals, the same number that Naslund had in the second period last Thursday in a 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. Bertuzzi, whose inconsistent play frustrated the New York Islanders after they made him the 23rd pick in '93, was banished to Vancouver in February '98 with defenseman Bryan McCabe for center Trevor Linden. Naslund and Bertuzzi started on a clean sheet of ice in British Columbia, in the right place with the right partner.
The Brotherhood was stymied by Detroit in a first-round playoff loss last April, which is why the loud voice they sometimes hear is Crawford's. The coach blistered them following a 5-3 loss to Toronto on New Year's Eve, when each was-3 for the game, but they rebounded with five points against the Canadiens and another six in a 3-2 win over the Panthers last Saturday. In that match Bertuzzi scored a goal from the doorstep, moving the puck from his backhand to his forehand and flipping it over goalie Roberto Luongo.