Can the NHL Save Itself?

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It's fun, this finger wagging, this easy moral superiority. So every news channel, editorial writer and sports columnist spent a lot of last week excoriating Todd Bertuzzi, who plays hockey for the Vancouver Canucks. All Bertuzzi did was sneak up behind Colorado Avalanche centerman Steve Moore toward the end of a 9-2 game last week and punch that member of the winning team in the side of the head. Then slam Moore's face into the ice until his neck broke and the blood pooled. Bertuzzi was rearing back for another shot when other players intervened. Some fans at Vancouver's GM Place called the police to have them arrest Bertuzzi — and this is his home stadium.

In truth, most of the things that boxers, football players and lacrosse players do in the ring or on the field would land them in jail if they tried it in an office building. Bertuzzi was dangerously out of line and deserved his suspension for the rest of the regular season plus the play-offs — after all, Moore's year is finished too — but his action was, regrettably, part of the sport. "This guy went over the line for a split second, and now he is vilified over North America as a guy who should get life in jail," says broadcaster John Davidson, a former All-Star goalie. But even though the attack was uncharacteristic, it came about because Vancouver had vowed revenge on Moore after he leveled Canucks captain Markus Naslund three weeks earlier, leaving him with a concussion. So Bertuzzi taunted, poked and yanked at Moore the entire game, but Moore kept turning the other cheek. Bertuzzi, who has since made a tearful apology, got frustrated and Springered him. Then the great Canadian finger wagging began.


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If hockey were a normal sport, a fight would get you ejected, suspended and fined. In the NFL, just being too happy about your touchdown costs you money. But the NHL, despite an influx of European players, is still a sport born of parts of Canada that most people don't own enough Gore-Tex to visit. It's full of mafioso laws about protection and honor. And while it would seem sensible for the NHL to eliminate fighting altogether, it can't. "Some people don't like it, some people like it, other people like it in moderation," says NHL executive vice president Bill Daly. "But there hasn't been this huge hue and cry to get it out of the game because it's so barbarian. We have bigger problems." That demonstrates deafness to this week's hue and cry, but Daly is correct in one regard. The NHL is in the worst shape of its history, having suffered from overexpansion in the past decade. The game itself has been dulled by a suffocating defensive style of play. Fights and hard hits are all the sport has to promote itself with in the U.S., as it does in commercials and widely sold videos of fights set to music.

Hockey's bottom line is so bad that last month's league-sponsored report by former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt found that the NHL's 30 teams lost $273 million last season. "The results were as close to catastrophic as I've seen in a business of this size," Levitt said. Last season the average regular-season game scored lower ratings on ABC than bowling, billiards and poker. The NHL's contract with ESPN and ABC ends this season and won't be renewed in its current form, which yields only $4 million a year per team — compared with $77 million in the NFL.

As bad as this season has been, at least there were games. Next year there may not be. The players' contract with the owners expires on Sept. 15, and the two sides are nowhere close to an agreement. "The league has been preparing to trigger a lockout for many years now," says Ted Saskin, senior director at the NHL Players' Association. The owners are looking for wage cuts (according to the Levitt study, NHL players take 75% of league revenue, compared with 58% in the NBA), although they don't seem eager to cut the jobs of all those goons by eliminating fighting. Still, Davidson hopes the "black eye to the sport" will force the league to confront its precarious situation and "avoid the work stoppage before we lose more people than we can afford."

Despite the dangers that the Bertuzzi attack illuminates — like getting killed — players still want to enforce their own game. Which means that next season, when and if Bertuzzi gets back on the ice against the Avs, someone from Denver will be headhunting him. It's what happens in a game that is frustrated and allows the frustration to get turned to violence. You should have seen the last days of roller derby.