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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

Teams such as Gretzky's Oilers sent out muscular players to protect their stars, a role McSorley and Semenko played well. And if one team's enforcer fought another, it was considered acceptable, a release of tension.

"The players used to police themselves," Murray said, "and I think you get respect by knowing that if you do something that's uncalled for in the game or vicious in the game, that there was payback. And the payback was that you had to face various people on the opposite side."

Not anymore. As a result, many executives and players say they've seen more ugly hits from behind and to backs and heads because the instigator penalty deters opponents from responding. NHL officials say the effectiveness of the instigator rule will be discussed as part of the upcoming collective bargaining talks.

But for now, grudges can fester, as with Bertuzzi.

After Moore's hit knocked Naslund out of the game Feb. 16 at Denver, the teams had played an incident-free 5-5 tie on March 3 at Denver. But in the next game, no doubt frustrated by his team's imminent loss, Bertuzzi erupted.

"It would have been eliminated if they had just fought in the second game," said Kings forward Sean Avery, who is second in the NHL with 240 penalty minutes. "Have a five-on-five fight and get it over with. That's how you should deal with it. Put your five toughest guys on the ice and let them fight. Eventually, the anger is going to burn off.

"It didn't happen and just kept building and building. Then you have a 9-2 blowout game."

Fuhr agreed, saying Bertuzzi plays "with an edge" because he knows he can provoke opponents and not fear reprisal.

"It used to be that scorers scored and checkers checked. Now you've got guys who are not normally aggressive and tough being aggressive and tough because there are no consequences," Fuhr said.

But the Bertuzzi-Moore incident had unhappy consequences for the NHL's image.

The punch was replayed on TV for days. U.S. network news shows, which regard hockey as a curiosity if they regard it at all, roundly condemned the NHL for allowing fighting. To Murray, that mixed separate issues. "That was not a fight. That was thuggery, really," he said.

Yet the thuggery hasn't stopped.

On Saturday, Toronto's Wade Belak struck Colorado's Ossi Vaananen over the head with his stick and was suspended for his team's last six games plus two playoff games. Belak claimed he'd lost his balance and hit Vaananen accidentally.

On Sunday, veteran Mark Messier of the New York Rangers speared Pittsburgh's Martin Strbak and was suspended for two games. Colorado's Chris Simon was suspended for two games for kneeing Dallas Sergei Zubov on Monday.

"Hockey today is at risk of becoming an extreme sport," Dryden said during a symposium on the future of hockey.

Fights and fighting have decreased over the last two decades because of stiff penalties that have virtually ended bench-clearing brawls, but newspaper and Internet columnists from Maine to Malibu declared the Bertuzzi incident symbolized a sport so brutish and unappealing that it would not be missed if a labor dispute delays or cancels play next season.

"When it's portrayed on CNN or by Katie Couric it looks like some ugly beast that's crawled out from under the stairs and you say, 'This doesn't belong in society,' " Grimson said.

"I don't condone what Todd Bertuzzi did, but you have to appreciate the context that kind of act comes from. If you don't know the sport and you throw the 15-second clip on CNN all day, it sounds simplistic to say it's presented out of context. But that's really what happens."

Murray sees nothing wrong with a fight between two willing opponents in a game that's played between increasingly larger players skating at a fast pace in a confined space. He also contends baseball can be a more vicious pastime.

"People throw at your head with a baseball at 100 mph. That's their intimidation and their payback," he said. "If you do it to a good hitter, then the next time up that pitcher is going to get decked. But ours is a real obvious thing, where you grab a person and you have a fight."

Bertuzzi apologized to Moore, but the damage was done. Moore's spinal cord was uninjured but recovery from a concussion is unpredictable; Bertuzzi's absence from the Canucks' lineup will surely hinder the team's drive for the Stanley Cup. And to a hockey player, there's no greater punishment than to miss the playoffs.

"The difference between a hockey player and a serial killer is a hockey player can realize what he's done and can stop it," Avery said. "Todd Bertuzzi will never ever do that again, and I hate Todd Bertuzzi with a passion, but something like this isn't going to happen again."

The NHL can only hope he's right. "I think the [players'] union and the league together have got to help every player that's in the league understand that these things affect your life. They affect your career," Murray said.

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