One of the more bone-chilling acts of violence in the history of professional sports occurred on March 8, 2004 at the Pepsi Center in Denver. It was on this now-historic date that then-Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi infamously jumped Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore from behind before driving him headfirst into the ice.
Public outcry following the attack was immediate and justifiably harsh. Moore suffered career-ending injuries, including brain damage, and to this day is still actively going through rehabilitation, attempting to return to normal life.
Concurrently, a $20 million lawsuit filed by Moore against Bertuzzi over the altercation has finally forced its way into a Canadian court. In light of this, Bertuzzi filed a counter-suit against former head coach Marc Crawford, claiming that it was because of Crawford's urging that he made his bomber's run at Moore. Think things were messy before? They're about to get worse.
But should things have ever gotten to this point? Let's rewind a bit. Not back to March 8, 2004, but a few weeks earlier, on February 14 of the same year. Another game between the Canucks and Avalanche.
An ugly, 1-0 contest like any other, except for one incident late in the second period.
Moore, a grinder of limited ability, sees Markus Naslund, Vancouver's captain and best player, reaching out for a puck that Moore had just kicked back to an Avalanche defender. Salivating at an opportunity to completely obliterate a defenseless, skilled player, Moore launches himself at Naslund, who never even had possession of the puck. Naslund takes a shoulder to the head, hits the deck and misses the next three games with a concussion.
Now take a look at the box score for the game. Notice a penalty against Moore for the hit? No? That's because there wasn't one. Marc Crawford was, naturally, irritated and focused his entire post-game press conference on the hit:
"He got a pretty nasty hit," Crawford said. "It could have been an obstruction call, it could have been an elbow, but instead they call absolutely nothing. It mystifies me why this happens in this league. They talk about players not having respect for players. How about the officials? Should they not have respect for the leading scorer in the league?
"It was a cheap shot by a young kid on a captain, and we get no call.That’s ridiculous."
The NHL disciplinary board reviewed the tape of the incident and, in their endless wisdom, deemed that it wasn't suspension-worthy. The Canucks vowed revenge, taking their anger to the media and demanding some sort of punishment for Moore. The NHL couldn't do it, so the Canucks would take it into their own hands.
Happy ending? Not quite. And it could have been avoided.
Imagine, for a second, if the NHL suspended Moore. And not just one game, but several. How about five games for blatantly attempting to injure one of the NHL's top talents? Not enough? 10? 20? More than zero? Who cares? Some, any, number would have sufficed.
The fact is, the NHL, by continuously delivering hilariously poor punishments, continues to put its own players in harm's way. If the league can't properly do the enforcing, teams do. And in this case it was Bertuzzi dishing out a horrific assault.
So, what was Bertuzzi's punishment for ending another player's career? A lifetime ban? Massive fine? How about missing the remainder of that season. 20 games. Pathetic, right? Former goaltender and NHL analyst Kelly Hrudey didn't think so.
"There’s not much to learn (from the hit) because that was never accepted anywhere, that kind of behavior," he said from Calgary. "Bertuzzi was suspended for good reason. He was severely punished. (That behavior) was not acceptable then. It’s not acceptable now."
Not acceptable now? Somehow, the NHL doesn't seem to be conveying that message very well. But he did get one thing right: nobody learned a thing.
Case in point?
Or Trevor Gillies, on the same night, getting nine games for, well, everything he did? Par for the course. Another slap on the wrist. That tends to happen when Colin Campbell, your league's head disciplinarian, finished his career with 128 points and 1292 penalty minutes in 636 carer games. Boorish policy decisions by former goons begats boorish goonery on the rink.
Do you think Mario Lemieux lives in a vacuum, just complaining because his team was the one that took a beating? He's seen this before, time and time again, and when he saw the NHL's farcical brand of justice on display in the wake of that joke of a hockey game, he just couldn't keep his mouth shut anymore.
Another example? Last week's matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins fell on the seventh anniversary of the Bertuzzi/Moore incident. A fitting time for Zdeno Chara to try and impale Max Pacioretty.
Somehow, Pacioretty was alright. His future prospects are unknown, but optimistic. The injuries shouldn't be career-threatening but, mainly, we're all just happy that he's breathing, conscious and still mentally capable of being pissed off.
"I am upset and disgusted that the league didn't think enough of (the hit) to suspend him," Pacioretty told TSN. "I'm not mad for myself, I'm mad because if other players see a hit like that and think it's okay, they won't be suspended, then other players will get hurt like I got hurt.
"It's been an emotional day. I saw the video for the first time this morning. You see the hit, I've got a fractured vertebrae, I'm in hospital and I thought the league would do something, a little something," said Pacioretty.
"I'm not talking a big number, I don't know, one game, two games, three games...whatever, but something to show that it's not right."
Now, imagine that. The league taking things into their own hands and levying a legitimate suspension on an athlete. A way to end this immediately. But no. This is the NHL, where illogical conclusions reign supreme in matters of disciplinary enforcement.
NHL Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy, stepping in for Campbell, whose son plays for the Bruins explained 'his' ruling in a sad attempt at feigning oversight and impartiality:
"After a thorough review of the video I can find no basis to impose supplemental discipline. This hit resulted from a play that evolved and then happened very quickly -- with both players skating in the same direction and with Chara attempting to angle his opponent into the boards. I could not find any evidence to suggest that, beyond this being a correct call for interference, that Chara targeted the head of his opponent, left his feet or delivered the check in any other manner that could be deemed to be dangerous."
Now, upon first viewing the incident, I held the opinion that Chara didn't intentionally hurt Pacioretty and that the only real penalty involved was Chara's interference. It seemed, like Murphy said later, that it was a normal, albeit illegal, hockey play, found in many games, that resulted in a freak, unfortunate injury. Most people disagree with that sentiment, and, after seeing Pacioretty and Chara's heated exchange earlier this season, I now have doubts over my initial assessment.
Either way, the fact remains that Chara should have been suspended. Not just to appease the Canadiens, though that's certainly part of it, but also to protect Chara. To show the hockey community that he's been dealt with, and that borderline, dangerous behavior will not be tolerated. He's been punished and anyone who goes out of his way to deliver their own justice will be similarly suspended.
It shouldn't be the Canadiens' job to deal with this matter, it should be the NHL's.
Instead, the Montreal locker room is now incensed. We may not see anything happen later this month when the two teams meet again. But hockey players have long memories and this incident will surely fester.
Now, every time the two teams play, the eyes of the hockey world will be focused on Boston and Montreal. Not for the hockey, the actual skill event that fans typically pay to see. But the sideshow that will inevitably take over, sooner or later.
How can I best describe it? Ever hear that joke about heading to a fight and a hockey game breaking out? Yeah, it'll probably be something like that. Except with less hockey.