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Hat Tricksters Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi of the Canucks have become the NHL's most potent (and fun-loving) line

Near the end of a Vancouver Canucks practice last week, Markus
Naslund playfully shot a puck that struck Todd Bertuzzi on the
ankle, which meant that Bertuzzi had to shoot a puck at Naslund's
ankle, which led to some serious face-to-face jawing, which led
to Naslund's grazing Bertuzzi's chin with the butt end of his
stick, which led to...nothing. The minor contretemps was noted
in The Vancouver Sun, but it was as newsworthy as a forecast of
rain in the Pacific Northwest. For the NHL's No. 1 line of wings
Naslund and Bertuzzi and center Brendan Morrison, it was just
another day, another holler.

They operate in the dressing-room universe of verbal shots,
sarcasm and horseplay, tormenting each other with fervor and
affection. Nothing is sacred, including Morrison's prematurely
receding hairline and his can't-break-a-pane-of-glass slap
shot. No one has to offer a penny for their thoughts, although
Morrison said earlier in the season, on the Canucks' plane,
that Bertuzzi would take the coin because he's "so cheap his
wallet must be an onion--he weeps every time he takes it out."
Bertuzzi responded by putting Morrison in what he calls a
"death grip," but that didn't compare to a wrestling match
Bertuzzi had with Naslund on a plane. The three behave like the
brothers none of them has. Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi--in
the absence of a nickname, let's call them the
Brotherhood--have turned the NHL into their personal rec room.

The line's shifts are routinely entertaining, hardly a surprise
considering that in the calendar year 2002 Bertuzzi, a power
forward, led the NHL with 102 points; Naslund, a superb finisher,
was No. 1 in the league with 48 goals; and Morrison, the passer,
had 76 points, the 10th-best total. Their moments on the bench
are no less captivating. They sit together, heads bobbing,
tongues wagging, hands cutting the air in serpentine sweeps,
animatedly deconstructing their last 45 seconds on the ice. "They
bicker and bicker," says Canucks wing Trent Klatt. "'I want the
puck on my stick,' and 'Put it here,' and 'Why didn't you go
there?'" On occasion they are told to pipe down by coach Marc

Morrison bears the brunt of the abuse from linemates in his role
as the kid brother (at 27 he is six months younger than Bertuzzi
and two years Naslund's junior), the center and the trio's
newcomer. Most NHL lines start with a center and a complementary
winger, but the Brotherhood is an anomaly, built from the wings
in, like the Paul Kariya--Teemu Selanne line for the Anaheim
Mighty Ducks in the late 1990s. Naslund and Bertuzzi have been
together for more than two years; Morrison joined them on Jan. 9,
2002, which seems like a century ago in the NHL because lines are
routinely blown up weekly. Morrison had been languishing on the
wing, but with oft-injured No. 1 center Andrew Cassels a
free-agent-to-be, Vancouver needed a more permanent option.
Morrison is not as deft a passer as Cassels, but he's quicker and
a more dangerous shooter, a trait that does not always please his
puck-hungry wingers, who have combined for 404 points in the past
2 1/2 seasons, more than any other two linemates in the NHL.

"I give Mo a lot of credit," Naslund says. "It's not the easiest
job to play with me and Todd. He has to get us the puck and do
the defensive work down low that's expected of a centerman. He's
not afraid to shoot. He likes to use his slapper"--pause,
smile--"even if it doesn't break 75 miles per hour."

Naslund is the most unheralded star in the NHL, a slasher who
finds seams better than anyone but the Detroit Red Wings' Brett
Hull. From the start of the 2000--01 season through Sunday,
Naslund led all left wings with 109 goals--29 more than Kariya,
66 more than John LeClair of the Philadelphia Flyers, 24 more
than Keith Tkachuk of the St. Louis Blues--and had a better
all-around game than those highly touted players. Naslund and the
Dallas Stars' Bill Guerin were the only players with at least 40
goals in each of the last two seasons; Naslund, who led the NHL
with 28 at week's end, was on pace for 57 in '02-03.

"He's been the best player in the league the past couple of
years--by far," Bertuzzi says of Naslund. "We don't have a
payroll like Dallas or the New York Rangers. We can't surround
him with big-salary guys. We've had to work from the bottom up.
His accomplishment is bringing this team to where it is now."
(Despite a low $32 million payroll--the Brotherhood earns a
combined $9.4 million, only $670,000 more than Guerin
does--Vancouver led the Northwest Division with a 24-11-5-0

This insight into the Canucks' dynamics is hardly stunning,
except for the fact that it comes from Bertuzzi, a 6'3",
240-pound man-child with quick feet and soft hands who never has
been considered the brains of an outfit. He is the rambunctious
middle son, the one who punches his brothers on the shoulder a
little too hard. But the man in him dominates the child most
days. Bertuzzi did not awake one morning and decide to abandon
his rash, sometimes destructive ways, but the consensus of those
around him is that the automatic 10-game suspension he served
early in 2001-02, for leaving the bench during a brawl, helped
him refocus. The other defining moment in his maturation occurred
away from the headlines. Vancouver G.M. Brian Burke traded wing
Donald Brashear to Philadelphia in December 2001, and the card
games in the back of the Canucks' plane were no longer as much
fun for Bertuzzi. Soon after, he plopped himself next to Naslund
near the front of the plane. Now, when they're not smacking each
other with pillows, they're talking about cars or their young
children or, sometimes, their demanding hockey fathers. In
walking 30 feet forward, Bertuzzi traveled light-years.

"When I came into the league I said that I never wanted to be
here five or 10 years and not be acknowledged," Bertuzzi said
last Friday. "I didn't want to be the Average Joe who plays,
retires and then is forgotten. I'm in a situation in which I can
accomplish things--Markus has made me a more patient player.
Before, I'd want to get the puck off my stick as soon as
possible. Markus saw me differently, as a guy with skill. Now I'm
holding onto the puck, using the extra second to do something

Bertuzzi and Naslund are disparate men with different styles who
play opposite wings, but they are related through something more
powerful than blood: failure. "All three of us are castoffs,"
says Morrison, who was acquired from the New Jersey Devils in
March 2000 for two-time 50-plus-goal wing Alexander Mogilny,
which is not the same as being dealt for a bag of pucks.
Morrison's big brothers, however, were spectacular first-round
flameouts. Naslund grew up as the hockey equal of Peter Forsberg
in their hometown of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, but he stumbled after
being picked 16th in the 1991 draft by Pittsburgh. In the worst
trade in NHL history, the Penguins swapped him in '96 for goon
Alek Stojanov, who finished his 107-game NHL career with two
goals, the same number that Naslund had in the second period last
Thursday in a 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. Bertuzzi,
whose inconsistent play frustrated the New York Islanders after
they made him the 23rd pick in '93, was banished to Vancouver in
February '98 with defenseman Bryan McCabe for center Trevor
Linden. Naslund and Bertuzzi started on a clean sheet of ice in
British Columbia, in the right place with the right partner.

The Brotherhood was stymied by Detroit in a first-round playoff
loss last April, which is why the loud voice they sometimes hear
is Crawford's. The coach blistered them following a 5-3 loss to
Toronto on New Year's Eve, when each was -3 for the game, but
they rebounded with five points against the Canadiens and another
six in a 3-2 win over the Panthers last Saturday. In that match
Bertuzzi scored a goal from the doorstep, moving the puck from
his backhand to his forehand and flipping it over goalie Roberto

Such moments of brilliance illuminate a unit that has set its
sights high. The Stanley Cup is a stretch for a one-line team,
but it is not an impossibility. That would make the Brotherhood
more like the Fellowship of the Rings, right?

FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI TRIPLE TROUBLE Bertuzzi (bottom photo, left, 44), Morrison(center, 7) and Naslund (19) had scored 49% of Vancouver's goalsthrough Sunday.

COLOR PHOTO: LYLE STAFFORD [See caption above]