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NHL's Rules of the Goad

Some believe league's instigator penalty is flawed, and led to Bertuzzi's blindside attack on Moore.

March 24, 2004|Helene Elliott and Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writers

Hockey is governed by a red line, two blue lines and an invisible line that separates "good" hits -- those made to win the puck, take a player out of a play or prevent a goal -- from those intended to injure or exact retribution for slights real or imagined.

Vancouver Canuck winger Todd Bertuzzi crossed that line on March 8. Eager to avenge a hit leveled against a teammate by Colorado rookie Steve Moore three weeks earlier but unable to goad Moore into a fight, Bertuzzi struck Moore with a blindside punch to the head and dropped him face-first to the ice.

Moore suffered three fractured vertebrae in his neck, stretched nerves in his neck, a concussion, facial cuts and bruises. He was released from a Denver hospital Monday and his hockey future remains uncertain.

The NHL suspended Bertuzzi for the rest of this season plus the playoffs and required him to petition Commissioner Gary Bettman for reinstatement. He might also face assault charges, pending a Vancouver police investigation that is expected to continue for several weeks.

The incident ignited a firestorm of criticism of the NHL's tolerance of fighting and rough play. But many players, observers and officials say Bertuzzi's attack was an indirect consequence of the instigator rule, which was adopted in 1992 as part of the league's effort to minimize the fighting that bloodied its image in the 1970s.

In its current form, the instigator rule mandates penalties and suspensions for players who start fights and accumulate instigator infractions over the course of a season. However, many say it has made players reluctant to retaliate against cheap shots for fear they'll get an instigator penalty and put their teams at a disadvantage.

Some players, aware they can act almost with impunity because the victim is afraid of being adjudged the instigator of a fight, take ugly hits to a new level -- as Bertuzzi did against Moore. In this case, Bertuzzi was ejected. Had he been called for a lesser foul -- slashing or hooking -- Bertuzzi would have been subject to a two-minute minor or five-minute major penalty but allowed to continue, since he had not instigated a fight.

"Was it beyond the line? Yeah. Would it have happened 10 years ago? No," said Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr, a five-time Stanley Cup winner with the Edmonton Oilers. "[Twelve] years ago it would have been settled the same night. There was no instigator penalty, so it gets solved.

"Look back. If someone ran over [Wayne] Gretzky, you think it would have been settled there and then? There's probably a good chance that Marty [McSorley] or [Dave] Semenko would have gone after the guy."

Bertuzzi's punch was retribution for Moore's un-penalized shoulder hit of Vancouver's Markus Naslund in a Feb. 16 game. Naslund was caught unaware and suffered a concussion but said Moore had gotten him cleanly. The NHL agreed.

That didn't stop Bertuzzi from sucker-punching Moore on March 8 late in a game the Canucks would lose, 9-2. Moore fell face-first to the ice with the 245-pound Bertuzzi atop him.

"It was almost like somebody being hunted down, and how uncomfortable an image it was," Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, now vice chairman of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said during a Canadian hockey telecast last weekend. "It was a little like a National Geographic special and watching the lion and the antelope and how unfair it was ... the way he had absolutely no reason to believe anything was going to happen."

The incident awakened a debate begun four years ago, when McSorley, then with the Boston Bruins, struck Canuck forward Donald Brashear over the head with his stick in a game also played at Vancouver.

As with Bertuzzi and Moore, one player wanted to fight and one didn't, the victim suffered a head injury and the aggressor was suspended for the rest of the season. McSorley was charged with assault with a weapon and convicted; he got an 18-month conditional discharge and never applied to play in the NHL again.

"We can't be so naive as to say that our conduct on the ice rises to a level that's above the law," said Stu Grimson, formerly an NHL tough guy who now is a law student at the University of Memphis. "Sport is not above the laws of society."

However, setting the laws that regulate hockey has proven tricky.

In the 1970s, during the reign of the Philadelphia Flyers' Broad Street Bullies, most teams had at least one tough guy whose job was to go after a skillful player on the other team. If the opponent responded and a fight broke out that led to penalties for both sides, the enforcer's team would lose a player of limited skills, but the opposing team might lose one of its top scorers.

"The reason we put the instigator rule in the game was to calm those situations down," said Bryan Murray, general manager of the Mighty Ducks. "The people that were out there just looking for a fight on a regular basis paid the consequences."

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