- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 2004

When boxer James Butler sucker-punched Richard Grant after their bout in November 2001 in New York, he was arrested and later convicted of assault. He served four months in prison.

With that in mind, what makes a hockey player immune to the law?

The NHL suspended Todd Bertuzzi on Thursday for at least the rest of the season and maybe longer for the Vancouver Canucks forward’s vicious sucker-punch of Colorado’s Steve Moore on Monday that left Moore with a broken neck and a concussion. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called it an appropriate punishment for nearly killing someone on the ice.

“We’re hoping there is no criminal action,” Bettman said. “We believe we are adequately and appropriately policing our game.”

The ignorance of that comment should be criminal.

Bertuzzi’s act was not part of the game — or, more appropriately, should not be part of the game. What Bettman really said was he is hoping hockey players are above the law — or that hockey players are not like you or even James Butler. They live and play by different rules of society.

Then there is Bettman’s contention the NHL is “adequately and appropriately policing our game.” What it does is adequately and appropriately foster an atmosphere that creates incidents like Bertuzzi’s assault on Moore.

If Moore were not hurt as badly and had gotten up to fight Bertuzzi, it simply would have been part of the tradition of hockey, with the blessing of Bettman and those who tolerate the notion of violence in the NHL.

Every few years, there is a Bertuzzi- or Marty McSorley-type incident that goes too far because of its level of viciousness. If it weren’t for the sense of public outrage — not from hockey fans but from the rest of the general public, which gets a taste of the violence of the game when it hits the news — Bettman’s policing would be a lot less adequate and appropriate.

The grease moving the squeaky wheel of justice — the NHL’s version of justice — in this and other incidents like it is public pressure. To move it a step further and bring hockey players into the rest of society will require more pressure — including, perhaps, the real threat of legal prosecution for such acts.

If hockey players start going to jail for breaking the law, the league will be forced to take steps to end the culture of violence that fosters such brutality. It can’t afford to have players behind bars for incidents on the ice; it’s embarrassing enough for a professional sports league to have its athletes go to jail for incidents away from the games. To have players go to jail for what happens on the field or the court or the ice is an indictment of the game itself.

Vancouver authorities are investigating Bertuzzi’s hit. Maybe a criminal investigation will result in a conspiracy to assault, starting on the bench with Canucks coach Marc Crawford. A television closeup showed Crawford smirking after the hit. Perhaps it would go beyond the bench to the Vancouver front office, where general manager Brian Burke criticized reporters for the coverage of the Bertuzzi hit, saying he has been “vilified in the media through this process.”

Burke later told reporters, “If I can take even 1 percent of the blame off Todd’s shoulders, I’ll take it, all of it,” he said.

Put his name on the indictment as well.

But maybe it goes beyond Vancouver, to the offices of the NHL in New York and Bettman himself. His lawyer, Bill Daly, said law authorities should not concern themselves with what happens in their league: “I think one of the tests they should take into consideration is how a private organization polices itself. … You would hope if you step in and act appropriately that the prosecutorial discretion will be exercised in a way to keep the courts out of private sport.”

It is not a private sport, though it is slowly turning into one with the dwindling interest in hockey and a possible labor lockout next year. Before it starts locking out its players, though, maybe it should start locking them up.

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