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NHL PREVIEW | 2007-08

Nowhere To Hide

Bertuzzi can't avoid the spotlight; he's one of hockey's most polarizing figures. But the Ducks are happy to have him.

September 28, 2007|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Sitting in the stands at Anaheim Ice as parents root on their offspring in an afternoon game, Todd Bertuzzi watches quietly as his own son, Tag, skates up and down the ice.

Fittingly, 6-year-old Tag is looking for the puck and looking to score. Like father, like son.

The place erupts when his team puts one in the net.

A crowd's cheers -- and even jeers -- are well known to Bertuzzi, who is inconspicuous underneath his hat, not looking to draw any attention his way.

Perhaps.

Bertuzzi has had more than his share of attention over a mercurial 11-year NHL career that has brought him to the Ducks, his fifth team. As the defending Stanley Cup champions take on the Kings in the NHL's regular-season opener Saturday night in London, many in the crowd will be watching him.

The bright, often harsh spotlight has followed him. Praise and derision have gone hand in hand, depending on how one of the sport's most polarizing figures is viewed.

Some see a bruising, powerful player blessed with soft, goal-scoring hands. Others, a thug who maliciously sought revenge on the ice. To some, he's a devoted teammate who would stand up for anyone whenever he's needed. To others, a sensitive, moody sort who sulked when things didn't go right.

At this point, none of the portrayals mean much.

"It doesn't really matter to me," Bertuzzi said, quietly but firmly. "It's about the 25 guys in here and my family and friends. That's all that matters to me."

The Ducks represent a fresh start toward what he hopes is a bright future. The past, however, will never be erased.

It's been more than three years since the infamous incident in which he mauled Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore from behind and drove him head-first to the ice. Moore, who suffered three fractured vertebrae in his neck and a severe concussion, has been unable to play since. Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to assault and was suspended the rest of that season.

Whether he remains remorseful about Moore's fate or is worried about the pending civil suit against him is something Bertuzzi flatly won't talk about. The more pertinent question to the Ducks and the NHL is: Can he be the high-scoring forward who once tore through the league?

After an injury-filled season split between the Florida Panthers and Detroit Red Wings, it's a fair question.

"People kind of looked down on him last year a little bit," Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf said. ". . . He was hurt for a lot of it. I think he's energized and excited to be here."

Bertuzzi played in only 15 regular-season games and another 16 in the playoffs after being dealt to Detroit at the trade deadline. If it wasn't a bad back that ultimately needed surgery, it was a cracked tailbone that forced him out of parts of the Western Conference finals against the Ducks, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.

"He looked uncomfortable most of the time and yet he was still tough," Ducks General Manager Brian Burke said. "I'm glad it wasn't a best-of-11 series. Even with the pain, I thought his play was improving every night even when I could see him grimacing between shifts."

Bertuzzi said it was "frustrating not being able to do the things you know you're capable of doing out there. You feel like you're riding behind. When you get to [the playoffs], you want to be at your best and think that you can contribute."

And so the bumpy road has taken the gifted winger to Anaheim. Detroit wanted to re-sign him, but for only one year. Before he made a commitment anywhere, Bertuzzi sought out the Ducks in the hope that Burke, who was Vancouver's GM when Bertuzzi played there, would have interest.

With Teemu Selanne thinking about taking his team-leading 48 goals and 94 points into retirement, Burke didn't hesitate in acting on a player who topped 25 goals five times in a six-year stretch with the Canucks.

In Vancouver and now Anaheim, Burke has been in Bertuzzi's corner through good and bad, his faith never wavering even as injuries chipped away at the forward's ability -- enough faith to sign him to a two-year, $8-million contract that raised eyebrows.

"I had no hesitation in signing him and I don't question his character," said Burke. "I think Todd needed a fresh start with a GM who believes in him and a coach that wanted him."

Bertuzzi appears to be more motivated than ever. He was in Anaheim several weeks before training camp, working with strength coach Sean Skahan on a conditioning program that trimmed his weight to 231 pounds, about 15 under his longtime playing weight.

The 32-year-old appears to be moving better than he has in many years. The weight loss, Bertuzzi said, is something he hopes will be good for his back.

"He's done everything we've asked him to do to get ready," said Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle. "He prepared himself right from the moment we signed him."

Said Getzlaf: "He wants to prove to himself and his teammates that he's here for a reason."

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