That’s right. Ten years. For hockey fans of a certain age, as they say, it’s a bit mind-boggling that one of the scariest on-ice incidents happened a decade ago, let alone that we’re finally seeing the legal battles surrounding it finally come to an end.
The Bertuzzi-Moore incident took place on March 8th, 2004, but the root of the incident started the previous month. Markus Naslund – Vancouver Canucks Captain and the then-league leader in points – suffered a minor concussion and a bone chip in his elbow after taking a hit to the head from Colorado Avalanche player Steve Moore. Naslund missed three games, but just as no penalty was called at the time, a league review deemed the head shot legal within the rules of the game. Vancouver was obviously not happy with the ensuing review. Brian Burke, the Vancouver GM at the time, called it headhunting by “a marginal player.” Todd Bertuzzi called Moore a “…piece of shit. There’s no way that punk will be in their lineup in March.” His teammate Brad May also insisted that there would be a bounty on Moore’s head from then on.
The two teams met again on March 3rd, and despite the harsh words and threats against Moore, there weren’t any incidents to speak of. That would all change during the rematch five days later in Vancouver. The first period saw four fights, including one between Moore and Matt Cooke. This didn’t stop Colorado from taking a 5-0 lead, prompting league officials to contact the game’s referees to discuss a strategy to avoid the tension and violence escalating further. Obviously that conversation did not. Colorado went up 8-2, and by the third period the Vancouver bench hit it’s boiling point.
As that over-dramatic video package shows, Todd Bertuzzi followed Moore around the ice, tugging his jersey and trying to goad him into a fight. When Moore wouldn’t take the bait, Bertuzzi sucker punched him from behind, and their teammates piled on. What looked to be just another scrum in a heated rivalry game became much more as Moore lay motionless on the ice for the next ten minutes. It was later revealed Moore suffered a grade three concussion, three fractured vertebrae in his neck, and other more minor injuries.
In a press conference the next day, a shaken Todd Bertuzzi apologized to Steve Moore, saying that he didn’t have any intention of hurting him. He was suspended from the NHL for 17 months, and banned by the IIHF from playing for Team Canada in the 2004/05 World Championships, and the 2004 World Cup. Off of the ice, the Attorney General of British Columbia investigated the incident for four months before formally charging Bertuzzi with assault causing bodily harm. Bertuzzi pled guilty, accepting a plea bargain wherein he would serve no jail time, but rather perform 80 hours of community service and a year’s probation.
In 2005, Steve Moore already knew he would never play in the NHL again. He filed a lawsuit in a Colorado court against Bertuzzi, Brad May, Brian Burke, and Vancouver head coach Mark Crawford. It would come out that Crawford, during the game on March 8th, told his locker room that Moore “must pay the price” for what happened to their team captain. The suit was thrown out as it was deemed more appropriate for a Canadian court, as the incident occurred in Canada, and all involved in the suit were Canadian citizens.
In 2006, despite the previous assessment of his actions by the IIHF, Bertuzzi was invited to play for the Canadian olympic men’s hockey team. During his first game, a second lawsuit was launched in an Ontario Superior Court, asking for a sum total of $18 million CAD. Moore’s Parents also sought $1.5 million in damages. The NHL also got involved, trying to settle outside of court. Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment (owners of the Canucks) and Bertuzzi offered $350,000, an offer that was summarily rejected by Moore’s attorney as insulting. In 2007 the suit was increased to $35 million, and $3.5 million by Moore’s parents. The case was put on hold, as the extent of Moore’s physical injuries and their long-term effects Moore were still being assessed. Over the next six years, the case would be met with further delays and amendments, until a trial date was set for September 8th, 2014. By that time, the suit had increased to $68 million. It would also come out that the NHL refused to pay Moore’s disability benefit unless he dropped his suit, and that Bertuzzi and the Canucks made a deal in secret to share costs in case of a loss.
Now, ten years since the incident, and after eight years of litigation, the saga has come to a close. Though terms of the settlement prohibit the release of any actual figures, Todd Bertuzzi’s lawyer calls the final number “fair and equitable.”
For most hockey fans, the incident has become a part of history, reduced to sporadic mentions on the news that are quickly forgotten. Sadly, the effects have not been more far-reaching. Matt Cooke, an instigator during that game, continues to play in the NHL despite numerous head shots, hits from behind, and other injuries to players, including one that was instrumental in ending the career of Marc Savard. Steve Moore is met with as much apathy as he is sympathy, the court of public opinion often split between him asking for what he deserves, and grandstanding just to make a buck. Pundits and fans continue to rally behind the banner of “old time hockey,” where fights and illegal head shots are “just a part of the game.” The NHL has taken a beating thanks to not one but two lockouts, dismal numbers for expansion teams, and always seems to be struggling when it comes to keeping up with the NFL and MLB. While I am a life-long hockey fan, and will remain one for the rest of my days, for me this is a reminder of how long ago the incident was, but how little progress the league has made in protecting its players, and the game itself.