Regardless of any desire Steve Moore had to enjoy his day in court, there was always a chance it would not happen. The pending trial stemming from his lawsuit against the Vancouver Canucks and their former player, Todd Bertuzzi – for a brutal on-ice assault that ended a promising NHL career – threatened to rip back the curtains on the sport’s unseemly underbelly.
Mr. Bertuzzi, a free agent who last played for the Detroit Red Wings, was expected to take the stand to answer questions about the dark, unwritten code that governs fighting and retribution in the NHL. It was also anticipated that some of the game’s principal figures, such as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and former Canucks general manager Brian Burke, would also have to endure uncomfortable grilling by Mr. Moore’s lawyers.
A trial would have generated damaging international coverage just as the league was coming off one of its most successful seasons ever. With all that was at stake – the high-profile reputations that witness-stand appearances may have undermined – it wasn’t surprising when news broke Tuesday that an out-of-court settlement appears to have been reached.
While the news likely generated sighs of relief at the NHL’s head offices in New York, it robbed hockey fans of the opportunity to see those in charge held to account for fostering a culture of violence that leads to these types of incidents. Now, the league is happy to just move on.
“We are pleased that the resolution of this matter allows the parties to turn the page and look to the future,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an e-mail.
No details of the agreement were released, and in some respects it doesn’t really matter. Mr. Moore was seeking $68-million in damages. It’s doubtful he got all that, but he almost certainly received a boatload of dough, more than enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life. What it could never give him, however, are the things for which he’d happily trade every cent he’s just received – the NHL career and quality of life he lost on March 8, 2004.
The images of that night will never be forgotten: Mr. Bertuzzi stalking Mr. Moore from behind and tugging at his jersey before sucker-punching him in the side of the head; the hulking presence of Mr. Bertuzzi driving his stunned victim’s face hard into the ice; a pile of players from both teams landing on top of both men as a melee ensues.
“And the score-settling has gone too far,” announcer Jim Hughson would tell a disbelieving television audience at the time.
And indeed it had. The cameras would pan the Canucks bench and find star forward Markus Naslund, the gentle Swede who ironically, and unwittingly, found himself at the centre of this violent drama. It was Mr. Naslund who had been earlier knocked out of a game in Colorado by Mr. Moore in a hit deemed legal by the referees and the league. Didn’t matter. The Canucks players vowed revenge and in a game that was a foregone conclusion by the third period – the Avalance led 8-2 when the incident occurred roughly midway through the period – the conditions were ripe for Mr. Bertuzzi to exact his pound of flesh from Mr. Moore for injuring his friend and teammate.
Seeing Mr. Moore carted off the ice on a stretcher would remind Canucks fans of an eerily similar scene four years earlier, when Marty McSorley swung his stick against the side of the head of Vancouver enforcer Donald Brashear. The image of Mr. Brashear twitching on the ice revulsed all who were there to witness it. The incident effectively ended Mr. McSorley’s career.
Not so for Mr. Bertuzzi, who continued to play in the NHL after serving his 17-game suspension for the Moore assault. Yet he would never be the same dominating force he was on the Canucks before the attack occurred. Few would ever look at him quite the same again either. Whatever his achievements in the game, Mr. Bertuzzi will forever be linked to one of the most horrific of hockey moments. It would be an act that changed the lives of both people involved.
It would be wonderful to say it also changed the NHL forever – that the league learned something from it and altered course. But it didn’t. People say that there is nothing the league can do to eliminate momentary acts of madness similar to the one witnessed on that March night 10 years ago. Perhaps not. But it could certainly say that it will not allow players who do such a thing to ever wear an NHL uniform again: You viciously assault someone and end his career, it’s over for you as well.
Even if the incident had nudged the NHL closer to banning fighting, it would have meant at least something good came out of it. But no. That didn’t happen either. Instead, Moore-Bertuzzi will simply be added to a long list of brutal incidents that left us aghast but ultimately prompted the league to do little.
The best that can be said is the NHL can now officially close one of the ugliest chapters in its history. But the stain it left on the game will never come out.