Saving Todd Bertuzzi

There’s a saying about life … and it has to be described as an ‘old saying,’ because, well, there’s really no such things as a ‘new saying,’ right? … I mean, can you think of any hot new ones? So anyway … and where was I before I interrupted myself? … oh yes, there’s an old saying about life to the effect that if you stick around long enough, you’ll see just about everything.

I thought about that the other night after the conclusion of a Red Wings game … the second game in a week’s time that left us a local hero, a sweet skating and tricky shooting fan darling, an overtime savior who wasn’t Pavel Datysuk or Hank Zetterberg, or even burgeoning young goalie Jimmy Howard, but … Todd Bertuzzi.

And who would have thought that … EVER? Big, rough, tough, scary-looking, doesn’t-that-guy-ever-shave? Todd Bertuzzi, a guy who is generally disliked and booed in every arena in the National Hockey League. Bertuzzi is a forward who draws the ire of hockey fans from Newfoundland to Los Angeles; a walking billboard for people who don’t like or even know hockey, representing the blood and guts and not-so-random violence they feel define the nuts and bolts of the game.

That this apparent Tony Soprano of his sport should play for our Detroit Red Wings, the cleanest and classiest team in the NHL and a franchise usually thought to embrace the most positive aspects of the sport makes Bertuzzi’s successful — even nearly revered — presence in our town even more ironic.

I recall when the Wings acquired Chris Chelios from Chicago at the end of the 1990s. Chelios came here with a bad reputation, with a history of almost universal disgust among the Red Wings normally high-minded backers. A passionate female fan of my acquaintance — and from my experience no major sport seems to excite women as hockey does; the game and its personalities have historically fired up legions of distaff (meaning female, I hate that word but I need it here) backers all over the Detroit area, especially on the east side — called me in a real snit after Chelios had been obtained.

Her general complaint was that Chelios had no business playing here, that his history of nasty and borderline dirty play in Chicago had rendered him unfit to wear the red and white. She did not care if his talents might aid the Red Wings’ on-ice performance; there were some aspects more important than won-loss outcomes. (I told you she was a woman. Most guy fans I know are still mad the Wings missed out on signing the three felonious Hanson brothers from the movie “Slap Shot.”) While I tried to calm her about the Chelios acquisition, I understood her concern. The guy was a tremendous pain in the ass as an opponent, despite his obvious hockey talents. My friend expressed a similar concern when Detroit first acquired Bertuzzi in 2007. She later softened her stance on Chelios, even coming to like him eventually. But Bertuzzi, in her estimation, was simply the thug too far. And remained so … until this year.

For she, like many other Red Wings fans, is finally developing a real affection for #44, hockey’s baddest boy.

A look at history is in order. Todd Bertuzzi joined the NHL in 1995 with two strikes against him. He came to the game with a habit of throwing his 6 foot 3 inch body, and the 225-plus pounds that came with it, all over the ice … and particularly AT the mostly smaller players who filled the rosters of rival NHL clubs. That he was almost dangerously aggressive, highly talented as a scorer, AND looked like Bluto (sometimes called “Brutus”) from the old Popeye cartoons guaranteed his unpopularity in every NHL town … save the franchises of the New York Islanders and Vancouver Canucks for whom he played before becoming the most disliked player in the sport’s history in 2004.

It was in March of that year that Bertuzzi got caught in the middle of one of hockey’s least-attractive traditions — its concept of eye-for-eye blood-letting, of violent revenge by one club or one player when one of OUR players had been savaged by one of THEIRS.

Among hockey enthusiasts on Canada‘s west coast “our” player in this sad and unfortunate ’04 scenario was Markus Nasland, a highly talented and non-aggressive teammate of Bertuzzi’s on the Canucks. Nasland took a controversial blow to the head from Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore in February of 2004, leaving Bertuzzi’s high-scoring linemate hurt … and Vancouver fans howling for someone to avenge the injury — and perhaps more so — the insult. Likely because of his size and menacing presence, the fans seemed to look to Bertuzzi to lead his teammates, indeed perhaps most of Vancouver, in an attempt to even the score.

Unfortunately, for Moore and Bertuzzi and everyone involved … he did.

Todd Bertuzzi, wildly urged on by the braying mob in Vancouver’s arena the night of March 8, fell upon Moore from behind after unsuccessfully chasing him around the ice, trying to goad him into a fight. Swinging on him as they tumbled forward together, Bertuzzi landed heavily on Moore, with players from both teams joining the fray and quickly piling atop them. When the players were finally parted, Moore remained on the ice, seriously injured. He was removed by stretcher, then ambulance …suffering from what proved to be three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a concussion, ligament damage, and facial lacerations. Sadly, his hockey career was ended. And Todd Bertuzzi’s life was forever changed.

Legal aspects of the encounter continue to this day. Bertuzzi later said in court that he was ordered to punish Moore by his coach. The tragedy obviously had a terrible effect on Bertuzzi’s career. He went from All-Star status in the NHL to a troubled and marginal player. After being suspended for the rest of the ‘04 season and playoffs and sitting out all of 2004-2005, he skated for five teams in the six seasons following the Moore incident. He wept at a press conference convened two days after the fight, apologizing to Moore and his family, and adding “For the kids that watch this game, I’m truly sorry. I don’t play the game that way. I’m not a mean spirited person.”

While Moore’s career is obviously lost and beyond recall, Bertuzzi has played, and lived, in the shadows of that awful incident. When he was re-instated to the NHL for the 2005-2006 season, after 17 months away from the game, NHL president Gary Bettman said Bertuzzi had “paid a very significant price for his conduct,” adding that he was “genuinely remorseful and apologetic.” Bertuzzi later said “Just like Steve Moore and his family … it’s been difficult for both parties. I know I wish that day never happened …. but I’ve got good family and good friends and good peers in the league that have helped me get over the hump, and move forward and come through it.”

Thus we have Todd Bertuzzi, the oddest player on the current Red Wings, a player who has seemed to improve month after month this season, a veteran nearly 37 years of age who has seemed to stay … who prefers to play … in the shadows of his sport, on the edges of our town. He skates with a heavy burden, an awful memory that has taken the bright spotlight of NHL stardom from him, leaving him in a painful and embarrassing situation. Some may forgive, many forget. Still his past follows him; it defines him.

He has been very good for the Red Wings this season, playing as if … this is just in my mind, of course … almost as if he is finally emerging from the shadows of that past. Almost as if, nearing the end of a long and melancholy career, he is on a mission to find something, to achieve something, that will allow hockey to forgive him, that will give the public a chance to remember him for something other than the tragedy that marred one career and ended another.

As a player, as a scorer, he seems to improve as this season unfolds. It’s as if he is making a dramatic comeback of some sort. He has been playing beautifully, as if suddenly living up to the promise of his lost youth. We can only hope, even pray, that the name of Todd Bertuzzi … indeed even his own self-image … will emerge from the shadows of a broken past and rise to a deserved and welcomed salvation … on the wings of what looks to be a most promising and healing 2011-2012 Detroit Red Wings season.