What Is Assault in Hockey

by barbaragarn

Shea Weber of the Predators smashed the face of Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterburg into the glass on Wednesday (April 11), a move that earned him no suspension, but a minor penalty right away and a $2,500 fine announced Thursday–the maximum allowed under the players’ collective bargaining agreement.

That was Game 1 of the series. Game 2 was Friday night, and Wings’ tough guy Todd Bertuzzi dropped the gloves just 1:36 into the first period to mete his own justice. The Wings went on to win the game 3-2.

Bertuzzi’s involvement here brings back thoughts of Steve Moore of the Avalanche in 2004. On February 16 of that year, Moore had checked Markus Naslund, then captain of the Canucks and Bertuzzi’s teammate. Naslund sustained enough injury to keep him from playing three games, and Moore was not penalized during the game or after. Much chest-beating ensued between Moore’s initial check to the head and the teams’ tertiary matchup on March 8 (though they played one another in the interim with no major incidents). 

At the March 8 game Bertuzzi began following Moore around the rink, attempting to initiate retribution. With Moore ignoring him, Bertuzzi eventually grabbed him from behind and punched him in the head. Moore collapsed and lay on the ice for ten minutes; he w eventually removed with a stretcher. He had a concussion with amnesia and three broken bones in his neck. The injury effectively ended his hockey career. 

The NHL suspended Bertuzzi at once, and indefinitely (he would miss a total of 20 games); the Canucks were fined a quarter of a million dollars. Bertuzzi called a press conference later that week to apologize to Moore and his family, and fans. 

The next season was the lockout, and when Bertuzzi tried to play in Europe, he was refused. Commissioner Gary Bettmann reinstated Bertuzzi on August 8, 2005 and noted that Bertuzzi was remorseful and apologetic.

Moore was in the hospital for five months; on his release, he wore a neck brace for a year. While the Weber-Zetterberg incident isn’t anything near as serious as the Bertuzzi-Moore incident, it does make me think again about the the border between assault and aggression in a game. 

Off the ice, someone who attacks you can be guilty of assault. What about on the ice? Where is the border? Does anything that happens on the ice get written off as part of hockey? I certainly don’t think participation in a sport is carte blanche for someone to attack members of the opposing team. (Moore actually filed a civil suit against Bertuzzi, which is scheduled to begin trail this fall.) 

On the other hand, playing a contact sport–or even no-check, as we do–is an aggressive competition. The game would suffer if we take out the contact. But nobody wants continued violence that results in career-ending injuries–in the NHL or in the AHA, or WHAM, or even Blaine. So where is the line?