Steve Moore settles Todd Bertuzzi suit, but NHL still feeling impact

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(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

"I lost my entire career in my rookie year.”Steve Moore, March 2014

“It has been incredibly difficult and stressful for him.”Lawyer Geoff Adair, on his client Todd Bertuzzi, August 2014

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Steve Moore reached a settlement on Tuesday with the man who ended his career, Todd Bertuzzi, and the team that allegedly gave marching orders to harm him, the Vancouver Canucks.

It’s over, after 10 years of accusations.

Ten years of lawsuits. Ten years of pain, strain and a looming public relations nightmare for Gary Bettman. 

"We are pleased that the resolution of this matter allows the parties to turn the page and look to the future," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly to the Canadian Press.

Moore was seeking $38 million from the defendants in this civil suit, before upping the ante to $68 million in July. The damages were for loss of future earnings, as well as the anguish Moore went through after his career ended on March 8, 2004.

That’s the night when Bertuzzi sucker-punched Moore, then a forward for the Colorado Avalanche, driving his head into the ice, where it rested in a pool of his blood until he was stretchered off the ice.

The attack was vengeance for Moore’s elbow that concussed Canucks captain Markus Naslund earlier in the season. Actually, it was vengeance on top of vengeance, as Moore had already “answered the bell” and fought Matt Cooke of the Canucks in the first period. 

But late in the third, Bertuzzi took his shot at Moore, fulfilling an obligation for revenge established by his teammates and allegedly endorsed by his coach, Marc Crawford.

Bertuzzi was charged with assault causing bodily harm, pleading guilty and getting a conditional discharge from a B.C. court. He was suspended the rest of the season; overall, the lockout-extended ban lasted 17 months and 20 games.

Here’s his tearful statement in the aftermath of the incident:

The terms of the settlement are under lock and key. We may never know what this cost Bertuzzi and the Vancouver Canucks. Just as we may never know what Moore lost in this incident, because his career was just blossoming. 

But we know what the NHL lost on March 8, 2004, and continued to lose for the next 10 years: Its archaic notions of justice, its invulnerability from the pressures of outside forces to change with the times and, above all else, the sanctity of its “Code.”

***

There were two landmark moments in player safety in the last decade for the NHL.

One was Sidney Crosby’s concussion and subsequent absence from the League, which was the tipping point for a crusade already propelled by the gravity of head injuries to David Booth and Marc Savard. It led to new rules on head shots, the development of the Dept. of Player Safety and created genuine concern, perhaps for the first time under Bettman, that the league’s star assets needed better protection from their employer in the form of punishment to their assailants. 

But the genesis of that crusade was Bertuzzi/Moore. It was the moment when the hockey world took a step back and reevaluated conventional notions of enforcement, vigilante justice and “The Code.”

It had to, because the mainstream took notice and started asking questions about what exactly in the hell was going on in hockey, where an incident like this could occur and be considered, by some, to be part of the game.

That’s pretty much what Katie Couric asked when the clip made “The Today Show” the following morning. (And really, the NHL on the “Today Show” in anything but a cheesecake segment promoting the Winter Classic is bad news.

As she said: “We've talked a few times before about how unneccessarily violent the sport of hockey can be …”

Ouch.

Hearing hockey people rationalize the incident, then and in hindsight, makes one squirm.

Take Stu Grimson, an intelligent student of the game and obvious proprietor of the rough stuff, and his comments to the LA Times 10 years ago:

"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.’ 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."

The Bertuzzi Incident got the conversation going about that context, and whether it even matters when it results in the last 10 minutes of a player’s career being spent marinating in his own blood.

More importantly, it showed that the NHL would bend to the will of the mainstream on violence.

Bertuzzi’s elephantine suspension was a result of the public outcry from non-hockey specific media. The League proactively appeased them; years before a single concussion lawsuit was filed in pro sports, before a single “60 Minutes” report in CTE aired.

In the subsequent 10 years, public awareness about head injuries – and the potential for litigation, like in the Bertuzzi case – were a driving wind behind the sails of the NHL’s concussion protocols, rules changes and creation of the Department of Player Safety.

Not only to attempt to change the culture within the game, but to ensure that asses were covered in the event of a catastrophic event.

***

Thing is, we’ve seen worse that Bertuzzi/Moore since the incident. A lot worse. 

Stick swings to the head. Players launching themselves like missiles into opponents. Plays involving a sucker punch are referenced as “Bertuzzi-like.”

It’s an inherently violent sport, and it’s going to take generations for that DNA to be rewritten.

What can change, and has changed since Bertuzzi/Moore, is the culture that fuels it.

There are no more public bounties, like the one Brad May put on Moore’s head, and especially after the New Orleans Saints’ scandal. There isn’t the same level of eye-for-an-eye justice, because the NHL’s supplemental discipline – and its desire to avoid such incidents of bloodlust – have quelled them.

The best example of these shifting norms: Shawn Thornton on Brooks Orpik, which played out like a poorly conceived remake of “Bertuzzi Meets Moore.” 

An injured teammate. A tough forward looking for retribution, as the role chosen for him dictated. A cheap shot, a sucker punch and a stretcher.

The aftermath of the Bertuzzi incident featured some trying to rationalize why it happened within the context of the game. Not many endorsed it – the vast majority condemned it as something borderline criminal. But the catalysts for it, including the marching orders he answered from teammates and (again, allegedly) team executives, were acknowledged as threads in the fabric of the game for a century.

The aftermath of the Thornton incident, outside of the Bostonian apologists rallying for one of their favorite quotes, featured vast denunciation of the act and the role Thornton was playing.The notion of an “enforcer” was all but ridiculed, especially when combined with John Scott chasing around Phil Kessel earlier in the season like someone trying to corral a free-range chicken.

Watching Thornton’s attack was like hearing your grandfather telling a racist joke: What played 30 years ago doesn’t play anymore.

We’re smarter, shrewder and more sympathetic. We know it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Bertuzzi/Moore made us consider a violent act’s place in hockey.

Thornton/Orpik was a violent act that we immediately knew had no place in hockey.

My, how far we’ve come…

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