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Verdicts on Violence

March 11, 2004

It's unfortunate that when many Americans hear about sports, it involves violence outside actual play -- dads fighting, a player hitting another with a stick, shooting a limo driver, beating a woman. No one, hockey fan or not, could watch the wanton assault Monday night by Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi on Colorado's Steve Moore without wincing or worse.

In the 1,028th game of this troubled National Hockey League season, with his team losing badly, Bertuzzi, an immensely skilled and immense player (6-foot-3, 235 pounds before putting on his gear), skated up behind Moore to tug on his jersey, seeking a fight -- alleged revenge for a physical slight to a teammate. When Moore kept skating away, Bertuzzi punched Moore's head and jumped on his back, driving his face hard into the ice, leaving him unconscious with a fractured neck and bleeding profusely. Moore will need a long time to recover. His young career may be over. A few more pounds atop him and Moore might be dead. Bertuzzi was ejected and suspended indefinitely without pay, and he appeared at a league hearing Wednesday. Vancouver police may press assault charges, as they surely would if the incident had occurred on the sidewalk outside. Typical legal punishment is long probation. The league should be tougher than civil authorities.

Hockey is a collision game, fast, passionate, brutal, ballet-like and, unlike other highly physical games such as football, often continuous. Pro players are larger, stronger, faster than ever. Billions of dollars, even weaker Canadian ones, are involved, along with TV and its demands.

Bertuzzi's act was not hockey; we don't blame soccer for crowd riots. Bertuzzi's assault was cowardly, a sneak attack by one player on another, neither of them known for fighting. Bertuzzi must live with this forever, as Moore is now sentenced to endure his pain and possibly aborted career.

Here's what should happen: Bertuzzi should be banned from hockey as long as Moore is out of action. If Moore never plays again, the same for Bertuzzi. The Vancouver coach, Marc Crawford, who has overall player responsibility with or without advance knowledge of revenge acts, should be suspended until fall. Such serious punishments could adversely affect the team's prospects. But if Bertuzzi can't be bothered to think of his team when plotting mayhem, why should others?

Watching such tragedies stirs disturbing questions. Sports reflect the societies that play and watch them. Is Bertuzzi's behavior an isolated mugging? Or do we sense something in ourselves about tacitly condoning, through silence, diminished respect for others, social coarsening and a hip fascination with violence? The league's verdict on Bertuzzi comes today. The other, larger one will take longer to assemble, one head and heart at a time.

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