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CODE RED
Michael Farber
March 22, 2004
After another horrific on-the-ice attack, the NHL has to clean the violence from its game or slide into oblivion
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March 22, 2004

Code Red

After another horrific on-the-ice attack, the NHL has to clean the violence from its game or slide into oblivion

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It has become the NHL's Zapruder film, the videotape of the March 8 assault by the Vancouver Canucks' hulking forward Todd Bertuzzi on Colorado Avalanche rookie Steve Moore. A single graphic sequence has elevated hockey from a beloved, albeit niche, sport (the NASCAR of the North, if you will) into a top-of-the-newscast spectacle. Playing smack into the goon-show-on-skates stereotype, the endless loop of Bertuzzi's punching Moore in the head from behind and then slamming his head into the ice is the hockey equivalent of Janet Jackson's right breast being exposed, a topic of continent-wide conversation. People who think changing on the fly means putting on a clean pair of pants were suddenly talking hockey, among them Paul Martin, the prime minister of Canada, who said the NHL must "clean up [its] act"; and the American College of Sports Medicine, whose president-elect issued a statement saying, "It's time to stop these muggings masquerading as sport." Overnight the NHL found itself on trial even as prosecutors in Vancouver were deciding whether or not Bertuzzi should be criminally charged.

The sickening irony is this: If before the mugging Moore had chosen simply to turn and fight Bertuzzi, who had been stalking Moore, tugging on his jersey and goading him throughout the third period of a lopsided game, Moore wouldn't have ended up face-first in a pool of his own blood with two broken vertebrae in his neck and a concussion. The two players could have pounded on each other for a while, and the world would have paid no notice. Because in the National Hockey League there is acceptable violence and unacceptable violence, a distinction that makes sense in the skewed, internal logic of the sport but is inexplicable to almost everyone outside the game's cocoon. If Moore had given in to Bertuzzi's taunts and dropped his gloves, fans at GM Place in Vancouver would have roared, a score might have been settled, and a league whose moral compass is as damaged as Moore's neck would have cheerfully continued its slide into obscurity.

The NHL reacted with severity, suspending Bertuzzi for the remaining 13 games of the regular season and the playoffs. Bertuzzi will forfeit at least $501,926.39 in salary and will have to apply for reinstatement next season. There have been longer suspensions in the NHL—in 2000 Boston Bruins defenseman Marty McSorley was shut down for a year after he struck Canucks enforcer Donald Brashear in the head with his stick—but none more significant since 1955, when the Montreal Canadiens' Maurice (the Rocket) Richard was suspended for the final three games of the regular season and for the playoffs for slugging a linesman. Although not a mythic figure like the Rocket, Bertuzzi, who in 2001 was suspended for 10 games for leaving the bench to join an altercation, is a star on a Stanley Cup contender. The Canucks were also fined $250,000, a punishment as significant as it was belated. After Moore knocked Vancouver captain Markus Naslund out of a Feb. 16 game with a hit to the head that wasn't penalized (Naslund missed three games with a concussion), Canucks fourth-liner Brad May said there would be "a bounty" on Moore. That same night Bertuzzi called Moore "a piece of s—-."

After the NHL announced Bertuzzi's suspension last Thursday, commissioner Gary Bettman said the assault had nothing to do with hockey. That is true only if the act can be separated from the hockey culture around it, and it can't. Bertuzzi's act of thuggery is only an extreme extension of the game's accepted law of expediency: Scores are settled with a punch. The NHL is the only league in which fighting isn't cause for immediate ejection. Nor does the NHL explicitly penalize blows to the head, as they do in the NFL, despite an alarming rise in concussions. The NHL has a 166-page book of rules and many more nebulous, unwritten ones, which fall under the general heading of The Code. In the game in which he was attacked, Moore probably assumed he had already honored the Code in the first period when he fought with Vancouver's Matt Cooke.

If violence sells, there has been a paucity of buyers in many cities in the United States, home to 24 of the league's 30 franchises. With a lockout looming after the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on Sept. 15, with losses approaching what the league says are $273 million annually, with scoring near record lows and without the presence of a crossover star such as Wayne Gretzky, the league is not unmindful of its predicament...and its opportunity. "We understand that we have a chance to write on a clean slate," says NHL executive vice president Bill Daly. "We can make the game a little more fan-friendly."

But at this critical juncture the NHL operates as if it couldn't spell catharsis if you spotted it the c and the a. Perhaps it can rebuild its economic framework and rewrite rules about goalies' playing the puck. The culture of violence, however, seems immutable. As Daly said last week, "I can't say there's been a large movement to eliminate fighting." The league remains strangled by an ethos in which the ultimate game for most players is a Gordie Howe hat trick: a goal, an assist and a fight. If the NHL had the will, it could institute penalties so harsh that fighting would be eliminated overnight. (There is clear precedent in the NBA In the wake of an ugly 1977 incident when Kermit Washington decked Rudy Tomjanovich, the NBA made penalties for fighting so exact and severe that such episodes are now rare.)

To prevent a strong no-fighting rule from encouraging the tactic of having insignificant players start fights with star players to take them out of the game, referees could moderate the penalty of a player who did not start a fight. There are those who say that slashing and high-sticking incidents would rise without the ameliorative effects of fisticuffs. But the NHL would only need to crack down hard on illegal stickwork and, voil�, a reinvented game might actually mirror the playoffs, those magical two months when, with so much at stake, fighting vanishes.

Of course this is a nearly paralyzing issue for a league that receives roughly 60% of its annual $2 billion revenue from the gate. The core audience seems to embrace fighting. According to a March 16 Hockey News fan poll, only 3% of respondents "dislike" fighting. The NHL risks offending lifelong fans, but would those fans really turn their backs on the game they love? And how does that risk compare with the risk of failing to attract new fans? With attendance down for the second straight year, the most appropriate question for the NHL to ask itself about the possible elimination of fighting is, What have we got to lose?

The most surprising immediate result of the Bertuzzi fiasco is the quarter-million-dollar fine levied by Campbell against the Canucks. The action suggests the potential value of such fines as a deterrent to on-ice violence by establishing a new level of accountability for coaches and general managers. In a game on Feb. 26 in Ottawa, the Senators' Martin Havlat high-sticked Flyers forward Mark Recchi in the face during a 1-1 tie. (Havlat was later suspended for two games.) After the game Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said of Havlat, "Some day someone's going to make him eat his lunch." A few weeks later, in the final minutes of a March 5 game in Philadelphia between the two teams, there were 21 fighting majors in a 32-second span, and an NHL-record 419 penalty minutes. After the match Flyers G.M. Bob Clarke was screaming outside the Senators' dressing room because Ottawa coach Jacques Martin had sent enforcer Chris Neil on the ice to fight a skilled player, Radovan Somik, in the final 1:45. Clarke said that when the two teams meet again on April 2 in Philadelphia, Ottawa stars Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfredsson would be unable to hide. "The coach has a huge role in things like this," said Detroit Red Wings veteran Brendan Shanahan. "All a coach has to do is say something, and it can defuse the whole thing. But when coaches and G.M.'s start saying this guy or that guy's going to get it, it throws fuel on the fire."

The fact remains that the Sopranos-style cycle of retribution in hockey has not been noticeably tempered by fines or suspensions. Bertuzzi's assault, and others like it, will continue to happen as long as fighting and on-ice violence remain central to the game. And the Code will continue to be honored. Moore was transferred from a Vancouver hospital to one in Colorado last Saturday, three days after a remorseful, lachrymose Bertuzzi said he had not intended to hurt Moore. And other players continued to try to define and defend the nature of their game. Said Brashear, the victim of McSorley's attack four years ago, "I probably would have done the same thing [as Bertuzzi]. But I might have done it a different way."

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