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NHL on a death watch

Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2004

One of these days, the National Hockey League will finally get it.

That will be the day one of its goons kills another player on the ice.

Don't think it can't happen. It almost did Monday night in Vancouver.

Repeated with predictable regularity on all the highlight shows, the sickening replays are hard to miss and even harder to take.

The sight of Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi sucker punching and then slamming Colorado's Steve Moore to the ice face first was startling enough. Watching Moore lie there unconscious in a pool of his own blood was horrifying.

Even worse was that this was a premeditated ambush, a revenge attack to pay back the wrongs of a few games earlier. If this had happened among gangs on a city street instead of teams on the ice, someone would have been arrested.

But, hey, hockey loves a good fight, and boys will be boys, won't they?

Maybe, but this was a prison mugging, not a fight. This one was so bad that even some NHL tough guys found it a little tough to take.

Moore's neck was broken, and he had a concussion and deep cuts on his face. Luckily, he's just out for the season. Luckily, he's still alive.

''You've got only one brain,'' Calgary enforcer Krzysztof Oliwa told Canadian Press. ''You fight and you may get hurt, but at least you have a fair chance. This kid never had a chance.''

The NHL moved promptly to suspend Bertuzzi and he could miss at least the rest of the season; the league will announce the punishment Thursday. And, for the second time in four years, Vancouver police are putting together an assault case against an NHL player.

People in hockey are wringing their hands again, just as they were when former Boston Bruins player Marty McSorley slashed Vancouver's Donald Brashear in the head with his stick in February 2000. Sadly, for the sake of a game that now occupies only a niche in America's sports fabric, nothing is likely to change.

For all the talk about cleaning up the fighting that mars the NHL, the league has merely paid lip service to the notion that fighting doesn't have a place in any civilized sport outside of boxing.

If you don't believe that, just see what happened a few nights earlier when the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators combined to set an NHL record for penalty minutes in a fight-filled game.

Five separate brawls broke out in the final two minutes and a total of 16 players were ejected. One by one, ejected Flyers players skated off the ice to cheers and were greeted by high-fives in the hallway by teammates already tossed from the game.

Was anyone upset? Not in the least.

''It was exciting for hockey and for our fans,'' Flyers goaltender Robert Esche said.

Like most NHL fights, it was about retribution. The Flyers were upset because a week earlier Senators forward Martin Havlat hit Mark Recchi in the face with his stick, which cost him a whopping two-game penalty.

''My teammates didn't forget what happened,'' Recchi said. ''There was a lot of emotion.''

Fighting has always been somewhat honorable in hockey, one reason teams employ thugs whose only job is to try to terrorize the opposition.

But there's a big difference between dropping the gloves and throwing punches and blindsiding a player or slashing his face with a stick.

''As NHL players, we get fired up and sometimes do stupid things on the ice, but nobody wants to see injuries to the extent of Moore's,'' Detroit Red Wings veteran Brendan Shanahan said.

The NHL had its chance to end the thuggery that has turned so many people off the sport after McSorley attacked Brashear, sending him crumpling to the ice. Instead of banning McSorley for life, the league gave him a year's suspension, though his career was almost over anyway and he didn't play again.

Equally laughable was the justice handed out by a Vancouver court, which found McSorley guilty of assault. McSorley's punishment? He wasn't allowed to play against his victim for the next 18 months.

Unlike McSorley, Bertuzzi wasn't the team's enforcer, but an All-Star player who was fifth in the league in scoring last year. Vancouver will miss him, especially in the playoffs, should his season be over.

There's little doubt that Bertuzzi won't be back this year, if only because of the public outcry from people whose only glimpse of hockey this season came from watching one violent video clip. He's likely to get a suspension similar to McSorley's, after which all will be forgiven.

The culture of violence that's so much a part of the NHL, though, will continue. It's too inbred in the league to stop without some drastic action.

Maybe someone will have to pay the ultimate penalty for it to stop. Maybe someone has to die.

And with players now bigger, stronger, faster and more reckless than ever, maybe someone will.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.



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