It took him 28 years in the public eye but Wayne Gretzky has finally done something controversial.
More than a month after Team Canada’s Olympic hockey roster was announced, Gretzky’s decision to include Todd Bertuzzi is still being criticized. Everyone — from hockey moms to TV commentators to casual fans — seems to agree that Team Canada should leave Bertuzzi on the sidelines.
Since his on-ice attack on Steve Moore in March of 2004, Bertuzzi has been called a goon, a thug, and a criminal. He’s been booed in every NHL rink. A player like Bertuzzi, critics say, isn’t worthy of wearing the Maple Leaf.
What short memories those critics have. The fact is, Canada’s image in international hockey is far from squeaky clean. Anyone who sees Canadian players as gentlemen on the ice is a hockey history revisionist.
Just a week prior to the release of the Olympic roster, the nation’s junior World Championship squad was announced. Right there at the top of the list was a young man named Steve Downie. Ontario Hockey League fans will remember him as the player who cross-checked his own teammate in the teeth because he refused to participate in a hazing ritual.
Just a few months later, Downie was heralded as Canadian hero, a key leader on a team that everyone expected to underachieve.
Remember Game 6 of the Summit Series? John Ferguson told Bobby Clarke to “do something” about Valeri Kharlamov. Minutes later, the Russian player found himself lying on the ice clutching a broken ankle. Four years after the most famous slash in history, Clarke was named captain of the inaugural Canada Cup team.
And then there’s the Rocket. After an attack on Hal Lycoe that would have made Marty McSorley cringe, he punched out a linesman. Would he have been left off Team Canada if professionals were eligible in his day? Not likely.
In each case, Canadians forgave and forgot. Why we can’t do so in Bertuzzi’s case is a mystery. Maybe it’s because his hit has been replayed so many times it’s etched into the national consciousness.
The point is not that the actions of others excuse what Bertuzzi did. It’s simply that hockey, especially in this country, involves playing on raw emotion. And that means sometimes a player will lose his cool. Like it or not, it’s a part of the game.
And like it or not, Canada needs Bertuzzi. Eric Staal, Jason Spezza, and Sidney Crosby are all talented players, you can’t have four lines of superstars. It’s the same logic that earned Kris Draper a spot. Even in tournament hockey, you need grit, and Bertuzzi has both that and a nose for the net.
He’ll also bring much-needed focus to the Canadian team, which is notorious for its slow starts. If there’s one player who’s learned how to tune out the media and the rabid Canadian fans, it’s Bertuzzi. It stands to reason that his new-found mental discipline will rub off on the rest of the team.
And then there’s the obvious psychological edge. It doesn’t matter if you’re Girts Ankipans of lowly team Latvia or Ilya Kovalchuk of the mighty Russians — Bertuzzi will intimidate you in a way that no other player can.
It’s true that Bertuzzi isn’t having a career year. But neither is Martin Brodeur, and he’s the hands-down favourite to be the starting goaltender. Gretzky, Steve Tambellini, and the other Hockey Canada brass are counting on the pressure of the Olympics to drive these players to perform.
Big Bert knows he’s got a lot of respect to earn back. You can bet he’ll be poised to do just that in Turin.