Today is the anniversary of one of the most heinous acts ever committed in sports. Seven years ago today, Todd Bertuzzi (then a member of the Vancouver Canucks) fulfilled a bounty on Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore, sucker-punching him from behind and breaking his neck.
After seven years, the incident has yet to be settled. Steve Moore has filed a $20 million lawsuit against Bertuzzi, a case that will go to court next month. Still, the Bertuzzi-Moore incident still has quite a bit to say about the state of violence in today's NHL.
March 8, 2004 was a turning point of sorts for the NHL. The ensuing lockout forced the owners to make changes to their game, and some of these changes made the traditional hockey role of "the enforcer" more limited, and the modern sport stuck between two boundaries. Most concede that violence is an inherent element of the sport, that serves an important role in team morale. But the Bertuzzi incident uncovered a darker side to hockey, where bounties are placed by coaches and certain players are targeted for retribution.
This incident was made very clear by this year's Pittsburgh Penguins - New York Islanders brawl, an embarrassment to the sport. Islanders players targeted Penguins players for the loss of goalie Rick DiPietro in a fight during their previous meeting, which in turn was retribution for a hit on captain Sidney Crosby earlier this season that was viewed as "dirty." Three separate incidents between these two clubs this season alone.
Fines were levied, suspensions enforced, but the incident was seen as another chapter in the long and bloodied history of professional hockey. But, again, it's part of the culture. Penguins owner Mario Lemeiux released a statement following the game.
Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. But what happened Friday night… was a travesty… painful to watch… a sideshow… The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed. We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action.
Lemieux's statements may read as grounded and accurate, if not for the fact that he also signs the paycheck of current NHL bad boy Matt Cooke, who has been suspended several times by the league for dirty play. Lemieux was criticized for his apparent hypocrisy -- and rightfully so -- but he is a single (very vocal) element within a culture that led Todd Bertuzzi into the decision to completely change two lives on March 8, 2004 and strike down one of his fraternity.
And that's the problem: the Todd Bertuzzi sucker punch of Steve Moore seven years ago blew the lid off violence within the NHL. This season's events between the Islanders and Penguins emphasize that the culture remains as strong as ever. But much like Moore's civil case against Bertuzzi, change can be glacially slow in the hockey world and frustrating to fans who view the violence as a black mark on their beautiful sport.