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Kids see extreme bullying in NHL

JIM COYLE -Toronto Star March 11, 2004

A newsletter came home in a backpack the other day from the local public school. It said students from senior kindergarten to Grade 5 had attended "a highly entertaining puppet show on the subject of bullying presented by a local production.'' The newsletter encouraged parents to talk to their children about the play in order to build on  its positive messages.

But who knows enough words, who could talk long enough, to counteract the example of threats and aggression and intimidation and violence poured down on kids in recent weeks from their heroes in and around the National Hockey League.

By now, the clip has played hundreds of times - in slow-motion, zoomed up close, from all kinds of angles - of Vancouver Canuck Todd Bertuzzi brutalizing the Colorado Avalanche's Steve Moore. It is emblazoned on the memory. It is the talk of the country.

But that - or something like it - was almost inevitable in the climate that's been brewing in recent weeks, and which has for years been fostered and supported by a whole host of institutions and
individuals, some of whom, it can be argued, own a share of the disgrace that's again been visited on the sport.

Let's start with the CBC. For more than 20 years it has employed - as well as making famous and rich - a man who at every opportunity, from the most influential pulpit in the land, has championed thuggery and fighting while demeaning skill and sportsmanship and those disinclined to brawl.

It is not just that the cartoonish Don Cherry is frequently incoherent. It is not just that he adds less by way of intelligent game analysis in a year than, say, TSN's Pierre Maguire does in two minutes.

It is that he has lauded, applauded and legitimized the vigilante code of frontier justice that was meted out Monday night in Vancouver at such terrible cost to all concerned - the victim, the assailant, both teams, the game itself.

Anyone who pays attention to the NHL could feel something like this coming for the last month, feel it in much the same way you sense an approaching thunderstorm. The environment was ominous, the air
electric, the barometer falling.

From two NHL camps, especially, the storm warnings blew loud and clear. And the NHL did nothing to stop it.

Ever since Steve Moore injured Canuck star Markus Naslund in February, the mutterings from Vancouver have been as clear as the satellite image of an advancing front.

One Canuck, Brad May, talked openly about a bounty having been put on Moore's head and that ``it's going to be fun when we get him.'' It didn't even matter if Moore's hit was clean, he said.

Evidently, the league saw nothing dangerous in a coach hinting at retribution, saw nothing wrong with May's explicit threat.

But let's cut for a moment to another war zone.

After a February game between the Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers in which Senator Martin Havlat was ejected for high-sticking Flyer Mark Recchi, Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock made loud and long predictions about how the young Senator would, someday, somewhere, be fed his lunch by somebody in the league.

The Flyers hardly needed help from a cryptographer to divine the meaning in their coach's smiling message. And, in case anyone else did, the smug and smirking Cherry interpreted it a few days later for
his national TV audience.

It meant, he said, that Havlat would soon be eating his lunch through a straw.

Hitchcock was apparently not upbraided by the league. And it could hardly be a surprise that in a rematch a week or so later in Philadelphia, a brawl broke out that set records for penalties.

It wasn't even a one-bout deal. The players fought in shifts. The brawls came sequentially. Some were obviously premeditated, not related at all to some foul in the heat of battle. By game's end, only 13 players remained from the two teams combined.

At any moment, either coach could have put a stop to the disgrace. Neither apparently did. And neither was disciplined by the NHL.

After the game, Flyer enforcer Donald Brashear boasted to reporters that he had started the brawl. He was not fined or suspended by the league.

Shortly afterwards, Flyer general manager Bobby Clarke - he of the famously devastating slash across Valery Kharlamov's ankle 30 years ago - taunted the Senators, saying there would be no way to hide skill players like Daniel Alfredsson and Petr Bondra the next time Ottawa came to Philadelphia.

For his threats, he was not disciplined by the league.

After the Bertuzzi attack, the all-day sports shows could hardly have been more excited, resembling nothing so much, in their tone and maturity, as overgrown frat boys.

As CNN during any of America's military forays likes to call in retired generals to explain the bombing, the sports networks had a host of former hockey pugs to explain the manly code by which professional hockey lives.

None was more frank in his praise of this than one Tony Twist. He was happy to explain, in fact, how the players, if left to their own devices, would police themselves.

What should have happened, he said, was that, instead of chasing down Moore, one of the Canucks should have laid a sharp slash across the ankle of, say, Colorado star Joe Sakic. This would send the
appropriate message that if you mess with our stars, we'll get yours.

That's how it works, he said. Though it is presumably not - the disabling of a Sakic by some thug - why fans pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket to attend games or tune in to watch on TV.

What chance do the puppet show folks have in selling their message when up against the likes of Don Cherry and Ken Hitchcock and Brad May and Bobby Clarke and Tony Twist.

Still, in the long run, Todd Bertuzzi may have done hockey a favour. He may have been the 245-pound straw that, in addition to breaking another player's neck, has finally broken the camel's back.

So egregious was his assault it might be impossible now to avoid confronting the twisted mentality that has been defended, promoted and encouraged by the game's high priests and consented to through silence by the league's leadership.

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