The inmates weren't exactly running the asylum, but they were causing quite a ruckus in section 130 of the Pepsi Center in Denver last Saturday. Clad in Martha Stewart--issue orange jumpsuits with homemade 44s on the front and DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS¬†on the back, Matt Ehrenberger and Jason Reed, a couple of nine-bucks-an-hour guys from up the road in Boulder, were making a fashion statement about Todd Bertuzzi. "Most people who break somebody's neck at work," said Reed, explaining his attire, "they'd be in jail, probably."
Instead Bertuzzi was skating the wing for the Vancouver Canucks, and his constraints, if any, were mental. In his first appearance in Denver since the March 8, 2004, horror show in which he blackened hockey's eye and fractured two vertebrae in Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore's neck, pockets of fans dressed in jailhouse orange, black-and-white stripes and neck braces jeered Bertuzzi in back-to-back games, presumably in hopes of forcing him to remember and feel bad. But did he? Asked about the derision after the match last Thursday, Bertuzzi stared into a phalanx of cameras and said, "It is what it is." To a variation on the question he also responded, "It is what it is." Another similar question drew another "It is what it is."
Clearly Bertuzzi's response had been carefully considered, and designed to end the conversation. For though the fans and media are keeping the incident alive a bit longer, here is what it really is: Over.
It is hard to tell what Moore, who sits at home in Toronto, unable to play, thinks; his only comment last week was (through his lawyer) that he didn't want to "participate in the hype." But hockey has moved on. (Despite the chants of "Bertuzzi sucks," even the righteous anger of the fans seemed to fade during the weekend.) Bertuzzi served a 20-game suspension that cost him $500,000. He also pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm and was sentenced to 80 hours of community service. He has since played three games against Colorado. (He went bowling with the team on the off day between last week's games: Things to Do in Denver When You're Despised.) Avalanche players aren't holding grudges. "Players put things behind them," Colorado defenseman Rob Blake said. "No one wanted to see what happened to Steve, but the penalty was paid. Generally guys are ready to accept that and move on."
The clearest sign that the page had turned came on Aug. 5, three days before commissioner Gary Bettman reinstated Bertuzzi. That's when Colorado, surreally, signed Brad May. Hockey fans will remember May, a formidable fighter and high-energy player with a dash of skill, as the veteran Canucks pot-stirrer who, after Moore injured Vancouver captain Markus Naslund in a game on Feb. 16, 2004, said there would be "a bounty" on Moore's head. Rather than repudiate May, the Avalanche gave him two years and, tacitly, absolution. May's day would have been a distress signal, a truly shameful signing, if general managers had the luxury of being as professionally outraged as fans. Colorado coach Joel Quenneville said May's peripheral role in the Bertuzzi-Moore affair "never came up" when the team considered acquiring him.
Moore these days is an all-but-forgotten man; he remains a presence in the NHL largely because of a looming civil suit. (His suit against Bertuzzi was tossed out of a Denver court last month because of lack of jurisdiction; Moore is expected to appeal or refile it in Canada.) Maybe he was disposable because he was a part-time player who spent just 57 games in Colorado, a Harvard kid who might not have fit the mold. Maybe he became a stranger because only 11 players from that infamous game remain on the Avalanche roster. Moore was not even offered a two-way (NHL and minor league) contract.
Bertuzzi started the season slowly, his play more Big Bird than Big Bert, scoring two goals in 12 games. But if he was feeling the weight of public disapproval, his burden seemed to be lifting last Saturday, when he brushed aside the catcalls and Avalanche defenders to stampede to the net and set up the Canucks' first goal. "His best game of the season," Naslund said after Vancouver's 4--3 overtime loss. "He was taking control of the game, making things happen."
Bertuzzi might be moving up and hockey might be moving on--at least until the next outbreak of indefensible on-ice lunacy. The only one left behind is Steve Moore, and that is what it is.
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ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO