Todd Bertuzzi will never forget March 8, 2004.
It was that day that he ended the career of one NHL player and nearly his own as well. On that fateful winter night, Bertuzzi, then a star forward for the Vancouver Canucks, sucker-punched Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore from behind as retaliation for a hit Moore had put on Markus Naslund, Bertuzzi’s Vancouver teammate, a month earlier.
In the days leading up to Moore incident, Vancouver personnel expressed their outrage at the non-call on the Naslund hit. Then Vancouver coach Marc Crawford allegedly encouraged his players to seek revenge. Former Canuck and Red Wing Brad May issued a so-called bounty on Moore. Bertuzzi obliged, but it didn't turn out the way he thought it would.
After trying to provoke Moore into a fight, a frustrated Bertuzzi blindsided him with a punch to the back of the head, then smashed Moore's head into the ice. Moore suffered three fractured vertebrae in his neck as a result, along with a grade three concussion, vertebral ligament damage and stretching of the brachial plexus nerves. He hasn't seen NHL ice since.
Moore’s lawyer certainly isn’t letting Bertuzzi forget it, as he is seeking $38 million in damages for the attack. Six years later, Bertuzzi is still paying for a punch he wishes he never threw.
Bertuzzi has tried to carry on with his career, but it’s been up and down at best. Detroit is his fifth post-lockout team, and his once potent offensive skills have diminished significantly. A 46-goal scorer before the attack, Bertuzzi has not tallied more than 25 since.
Right after the attack, he was booed viciously at visiting arenas. He still hears the booing, although it’s not as strong as it once was. He’s apologized repeatedly, but no one seems to be listening.
Despite all of this, Bertuzzi has found new life in his second go-around in Detroit. Surrounded by world class players on nearly every line, Bertuzzi doesn’t have to score to make an impact on a game anymore. Instead, he’s found a home as a role player with the Red Wings, becoming more of a setup man than the go-to guy. He’s even developed a knack for screening goaltenders, a trait he perhaps picked up from teammate Tomas Holmstrom.
It’s that kind of commitment to the team that recently earned Bertuzzi a new two-year, $3.875 million deal with Detroit. It’s a 29 percent raise from his previous contract, a $1.5 million one-year deal he signed before last season.
The Red Wings' front office repeatedly said they wanted him back, and Bertuzzi wanted the same. Bertuzzi wanted a two-year deal to give himself some consistency in his career for the first time since his Vancouver days, and the Red Wings were willing to give it to him. But with limited cap space to work with, it looked like the Red Wings possibly couldn’t offer what Bertuzzi was looking for.
In the end, it turns out that Bertuzzi probably wasn’t going anywhere. If he had left, he would have had to start all over again, uprooting his wife and two children. His kids, Jaden and Tag, jumped for joy when they found out that they’d be staying in Detroit for two more years.
But it would have meant more than just moving the wife and kids. Bertuzzi would have had to win over a whole new fan base, fans that may not be as forgiving as the ones in Detroit.
While he's still a polarizing figure amongst Red Wings fans, Bertuzzi is slowly winning some of them over in Motown.
At the beginning of the 2009-10 season, you would have thought it was pretty much unanimous that Bertuzzi had no place on this team. But after a campaign where he tallied 18 goals and played in every single game (that’s all 82 regular season games, plus 11 playoff games), Bertuzzi seems to have won the heart of Red Wings nation. In a poll at Winging it in Motown just before the deal was signed, 75 percent of respondents said that Bertuzzi deserved a new deal.
Compare that to a poll at WIM right after Bertuzzi signed last off season and you’ll find drastically different results. Just 33 percent said they were happy Bertuzzi was back, 31 percent said they were on the fence, and 35 were "frustrated" he was back in a Winged Wheel.
Talk about winning over a fan base.
Perhaps Red Wings fans are little more forgiving of Bertuzzi, considering our own past. Thirteen years ago, Darren McCarty initiated a similar attack on Avalanche enforcer Claude Lemieux, part of the infamous "Fight Night at the Joe" in the heyday of the Avs-Wings rivalry.
Both McCarty and Bertuzzi were sticking up for teammates. But while McCarty is a folk hero in Detroit, Bertuzzi has been dubbed a villain league-wide. The difference was that Lemieux walked away from the brawl, with only a few stitches and a bruised ego, and played well into his 40s. Moore hasn't been near an NHL team.
In typical Bertuzzi fashion, he hasn't cleanly won the hearts of Red Wings fans. There had to be a little conflict. After getting a two-year deal at a slight raise, many fans were upset with Bertuzzi—again—for getting a little more money than they thought he deserved.
The Steve Moore saga still weighs heavily on Bertuzzi. It may be years before the case is settled, long after Big Bert has strapped on the skates for the last time. He'll continue his career in Detroit, knowing that he prevented someone from doing exactly the same.
Should we feel sorry for Todd Bertuzzi? No. After six years, I'm sure he's spent enough time feeling sorry himself. Second chances only come along once, and Bertuzzi is making the the most of it here in Detroit.
But for some, they'll never forgive Bertuzzi for what happened on that March night.
Fortunately for Bertuzzi, he’ll have at least two more years to win them over.
The Todd Bertuzzi Chronicles: After The Punch
It's been a roller coaster ride on and off the ice for Todd Bertuzzi since he made that terrible decision six years ago to go after Steve Moore. Here's just a snippet of what's happened since "the punch."
- February 16, 2004: Steve Moore hits Vancouver captain Markus Naslund.
- March 8, 2004: Bertuzzi retaliates, breaking three vertebrae in Moore's neck, ending his career. NHL indefinitely suspends Bertuzzi, and he misses the remainder of the season.
- June 24, 2004: Bertuzzi charged with assault causing bodily harm.
- December 22, 2004: Bertuzzi pleads guilty in a plea bargain, is charged with one year of probation, which he completes successfully.
- February 17, 2005: Moore files a lawsuit against Bertuzzi.
- August 8, 2005: Bertuzzi reinstated by the NHL.
- June 23, 2006: Traded to Florida Panthers in Roberto Luongo deal.
- November 2, 2006: Bertuzzi opts for surgery on his back, effectively ending his Panthers tenure. He plays just seven games in South Florida.
- February 27, 2007: Traded to Red Wings, helps team advance to conference finals.
- July 2, 2007: Signs as free agent with Anaheim.
- June 28, 2008: Needing cap room to sign core players, Bertuzzi is placed on waivers by the Ducks.
- July 7, 2008: Signs two-way contract with Calgary, but is sidelined with knee injury in March.
- August 18, 2009: Signs one-year deal to return to Detroit.
- April 11, 2010: Plays in regular season finale against Chicago, playing all 82 regular season games for the first time since 2005-06.
- June 16, 2010: Signs a two-year extension to stay in Detroit.