Over spring break, the mainstream sports media did something it rarely ever does: it paid attention to hockey. Thanks to Vancouver Canucks’ winger Todd Bertuzzi’s malicious cheap shot on Colorado Avalanche player Steve Moore on March 8 — a sucker punch that easily could have paralyzed the Harvard alum — every ESPN anchor, Sports Illustrated writer, and practically everyone else with a few seconds in front of the camera or sportswriter’s badge got a chance to kick a sport while it was down.
I had plenty of time to witness such attacks during my island vacation, spent in Rhode Island, which contrary to popular belief is not an island. SportsCenter should have a new ad with me in sweatpants on my couch, displaying “Sean Singer watches, the 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 12 p.m., and 1 p.m. SportCenter. Which SportsCenter do you watch?”
The NHL has long been treated as the stepchild, a violent sideshow, somewhat out of place among the other three North American professional sports. Ironically, Kornheiser, Wilbon and Co. chose the wrong moment to go after hockey. Bertuzzi’s disgrace has about as much to do with fighting as fractal geometry has to do with natural sciences.
If the media was looking for a moment to criticize hockey, March 5 would have been the right time. That night in Philadelphia, the Flyers and the visiting Ottawa Senators combined for an NHL-record 419 penalty minutes. The game’s final minutes were so ugly that it took the referees 90 minutes after the game to sort out the box score. Rumors of an Ogie Oglethorpe sighting went unproved, but the Wachovia Center would have certainly been a hospitable environment for the Hanson Brothers that night. Despite the fisticuffs and bloodying, apparently Bertuzzi’s rabbit punch was the appropriate catalyst for calls to ban fighting in the NHL.
Rattle off the replays of Tie Domi’s elbow to Scott Niedermayer’s head, Dale Hunter’s illegal check on Pierre Turgeon, or Marty McSorley’s stick to Donald Brashear’s temple all you want. These are the exceptions, not the rule. Those aggressors themselves would probably be quick to tell you that their actions have no place in hockey. Is fighting costing the game new fans? I doubt it.
The same people who would shudder at Eric Lindros’ jaw-breaking blow to Joe Thornton earlier in the season would probably also not appreciate one of Rob Blake’s bone crushing, yet perfectly legal, body checks. You want a real sideshow, look to the other professional sports. Terrell Owens pulling out a Sharpie and autographing a football after a touchdown. Joe Horn hiding a cell phone beneath the goal post for post TD celebration. Ricky Davis shooting on his own basket to get his 10th rebound for a triple double. Those are sideshows.
I do not mean to equate these actions with a life-threatening blow, but there is a reason Joe Sakic, Jarome Iginla or Jeremy Roenick would never pull a stunt like that: they respect their game and if they ever did something like that, there would surely be an enforcer looking for them on their next shift.
The most similar professional sport in terms of a code of behavior is baseball, steeped in centuries of tradition. No one seemed outraged when the Mets planned revenge on Roger Clemens when he had to bat at Shea Stadium in June of 2002. If you can sleep better at night because Shawn Estes, Clemens, Pedro Martinez or any other vengeful pitcher says he did not mean to bean a batter, your distinction between dreams and reality is a little blurry. Maybe another Tony Conigliaro-type incident would suddenly change your mind. Relatively speaking, a face-to-face fight isn’t so bad.
On December 12, 1933 Hall-of-Famer Eddie Shore hit fellow Hall-of-Famer Ace Bailey from behind in a Bruins versus Maple Leafs game, ending Bailey’s career. Cheap shots are not a new problem in hockey or one unique to it. It is also not a problem resulting from the allowance of fighting. If the NHL wants to crack down on something, it should be on the form of extreme and deplorable vigilante justice dished out by teams and players, like Bertuzzi, that makes fisticuffs look like a pillow fight.
Allowing fighting did not lead to Steve Moore’s fractured vertebrae — a reckless and moronic Todd Bertuzzi did. Thankfully Bertuzzi’s spineless action did not cost Moore his life.