It was the second story mentioned on “The Today Show.”
This was back when Katie Couric and Matt Lauer were setting the conversation for Americans every morning, when the first 10 minutes of “Today” encapsulated the two or three most important things happening in the world at the moment.
On March 9, 2004, the second most important thing happening in the world at the moment was Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi’s sucker-punch on Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore from the previous evening, which sent Moore off on a stretcher after an excruciating 10 minutes on the ice.
Couric, setting up the clip, said: “We've talked a few times before about how unneccessarily violent the sport of hockey can be …”
You have to remember where hockey was in 2004. This was before the resurgence, before outdoor games and Crosby/Ovechkin and Rule 48 and Sheriff Shanahan. It was a season in which over 41 percent of the games featured a fight; this season, that number is projected at 31 percent, via HockeyFights.com.
So it was seen as a league of “unnecessary violence,” and Todd Bertuzzi provided critics of hockey with an atomic bomb.
Witness Christine Brennan’s still-stupefying call for the NHL’s end in USA Today, from March 10, 2004:
“Who among us would notice if, this autumn, we found ourselves surveying a sports landscape without major league hockey? And how many of us would complain?”
So it went for Bertuzzi/Moore reactions. Those that loathed the violence in the game had a war chest of fodder for its demonization. Fighting was conflated with an assault by Bertuzzi; but then again, the assault was born out of violation of fightin’s “Code.”
After Moore's hit knocked [Marcus] 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."
And that’s when this happened:
Moore refused multiple invitations to fight on that shift, including Bertuzzi’s. And then he was assaulted.
"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,’” Stu Grimson told the LA Times at the time.
"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."
Bertuzzi was given a lockout-assisted suspension that cost him 17 months of hockey but only 20 actual games. The aftermath continues 10 years later: The Bertuzzi/Moore trial is set to begin on Sept. 8, with Moore seeing $38 million dollars in damages from Bertuzzi and the then-Canucks ownership group.
Here’s Moore revisiting it all on TSN this week (and my look back at the incident on its seven-year anniversary).
He doesn’t think about Bertuzzi, he says. He’s seeking a chance to get what he believes was taken from him. He’s seeking closure.
Ten years after the incident, he wants people to reconsider Steve Moore.
Ten years after the incident, has the hockey community done any consideration of what happened to him?
Three things that have changed for me, perception wise, over the last 10 years.
1. We’ve seen worse.
I used to hold up the Bertuzzi attack as the nadir of hockey violence. But it came three years before Chris Simon swung his stick at Ryan Hollweg’s head and Steve Downie’s flying shoulder-block at Dean McAmmond’s head. We’ve seen countless “Bertuzzi-like plays” that didn’t rise to that level of malevolence because of a lack of catastrophic injury. This doesn’t excuse it, nor does it reduce its impact on the game culturally. But if it happened today, how much would we hear from some Bertuzzi defenders about “the ice causing the injury?” We’re that jaded.
2. Todd Bertuzzi Was a Patsy?
One thing missing from Brennan’s demonization of hockey: The name “Marc Crawford.”
This is, perhaps, the greatest reframing of the incident in the last decade. That Crawford allegedly ordered the “code red” on Moore, telling his players to make him “pay the price.”
Did that mean hit him? Did that mean doing what Bertuzzi did?
The player and coach filed opposing views on the matter in court, with Bertuzzi claiming that Crawford “failed to exercise control over and caution his players against physical aggression toward Moore” and Crawford claiming he "gave no direction to the players in general and to Bertuzzi in particular, to retaliate for the injury to Naslund, or to engage in any conduct outside the rules against Moore."
Whatever the truth is, Crawford’s role in this has been the one that’s deepened over the years.
3. The Code
The Code has always been a hypocritical, ever-shifting set of morals that serve everything from an excuse for fighting’s existence to a justification for retribution. So it’s only appropriate that the Bertuzzi incident’s 10-year bookend is the Shawn Thornton attack on Brooks Orpik, in which a seemingly honorable player felt he was doing his team a solid by assailing an unsuspecting opponent.
As I wrote after the Thornton attack:
I’m pro-fighting. I’m all-in for the honor thing, the warrior thing. But if “The Code” actually reads “you fight because I want to fight you and if you chose not to fight I’ll assault you anyway,” then it might be time for me to sip tea with Steve Yzerman as we mutually cherish the virtue of Olympic play.
Both incidents raise unfortunate questions about the victim’s role – if only he had fought! – but, in the end, point to the same reoccurring problem for the NHL: What might seem honorable within the context of its secluded set of morals can ultimately bring dishonor to the game.