'Revenge' behind Bertuzzi hit still evident in game

So much has happened since ...

A lockout wiped out an entire NHL season. Sweden won Olympic gold in men's hockey, with Canada finishing seventh. The Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl ring. An Italian was selected first overall in the NBA draft. Roger Federer bettered Jimmy Connors' record for consecutive weeks at No. 1.

All have occurred since that terrible night in Vancouver three years ago Thursday, when Todd Bertuzzi turned out the lights on Steve Moore.

But has anything been learned by those who run pro hockey, not to mention those who play the game?

Did one of the ugliest incidents in NHL history -- right up there with Eddie Shore's attack on Ace Bailey and the Rocket Richard riots and the stick fight between Wayne Maki and Ted Green -- make one iota of difference? Or is it all just starting to become a deep fade?

You don't see videotape of Bertuzzi's gooning of Moore on TV as often anymore, perhaps evidence the incident is no longer so acute in the minds of North American hockey observers.

The threatening pro-Bertuzzi e-mails don't pour in from Vancouver anymore; Bertuzzi has been traded twice since his terrible error in judgment at GM Place, and West Coast fans no longer feel compelled to rationalize what happened.

His trade this past summer from Vancouver to Florida in a deal involving goalie Roberto Luongo now sits as one of the most one-sided in NHL history. The bamboozled Panthers already have moved on, peddling the big winger to Detroit at the February trade deadline for a bunch of futures and maybes.

Bertuzzi could yet emerge from the injury list (he hasn't played since October because of back surgery) and take part in the playoffs for the Red Wings.

Moore? He lives in Toronto and is seen around town and at his local church from time to time; his physical state is uncertain, his career as a professional hockey player is apparently over, and his lawsuit against Bertuzzi and the Canucks is still ongoing.

His brother Mark has written a fine book on the state of hockey called "Saving the Game: Pro Hockey's Quest to Raise Its Game from Crisis to New Heights." And his other brother, Dominic, recently was traded from Pittsburgh to Jacques Lemaire's Minnesota Wild.

So life, and the world of hockey, has rumbled relentlessly forward, leaving Steve Moore and his injuries behind.

But as the truly abhorrent nature of the incident passes further into history and carries less of a sting, it seems clear the hockey culture and mentality that fueled passions on March 8, 2004, seem at the very least still evident in the game and perhaps bouncing back stronger than ever.

Bertuzzi's attack on Moore, after all, was fueled by vengeance, ostensibly an attempt by Bertuzzi to exact some form of frontier justice for an incident that had taken place weeks earlier (Moore landed a clean hit on Canucks captain Markus Naslund that Vancouver advocates trumpeted as a dirty, unfair blow).

The anger of the moment turned into holy war.

Vancouver had an emotional, aggressive team and was run by the overcaffeinated duo of GM Brian Burke and coach Marc Crawford.

After the Naslund hit, there was actually another game between the Avalanche and Canucks before March 8, but it didn't end the issue.

In the first period of the March 8 game, Moore dropped his gloves and fought Matt Cooke of the Canucks. By the time the Avs were ahead in a game they would win 9-2, TV announcers were practically begging for some form of fistic activity, some expression of the animalistic intent they believed was still harbored in the hearts of the Canucks.

So Bertuzzi gave it to them, in an unforgettable way.

Fast-forward to the recent GM meetings in Naples, Fla. Burke, who is now the general manager of the Anaheim Ducks (the Canucks fired him before the 2004-05 lockout), led the charge for a rule change that was essentially the first order of business at the meetings.

With a league-leading 55 team fighting majors at the time, Burke called for a weakening of the rules against instigating fights, specifically lowering the bar for suspensions of players who had incurred multiple instigator fouls. Instead of three instigator penalties resulting in a suspension, the Ducks GM wanted it raised to make room for players to "police" the game in a way the officials and the league could not.

"It's not going to escalate the amount of fighting allowed," Burke told the Los Angeles Times. "But if someone runs my goaltender, I expect someone in black and gold to do something about it."

Burke's colleagues essentially agreed with him, and a recommendation was made to the league's board of governors to raise the total of instigator calls before suspension to five. Revenge, then, once again was officially recognized as a plausible reason for action, sanctioned by the league as though the Bertuzzi-Moore incident had never happened.

No one stood up and said, "Isn't this what got us in trouble in the first place?"

Later that same week, Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators decked Buffalo's Chris Drury with a hard, open-ice hit, hitting the Sabres forward from the blind side and driving his shoulder into Drury's jaw. Drury fell, hit his head on the ice and suffered a concussion, one that has kept him out of the Buffalo lineup ever since.

That night, incensed Sabres coach Lindy Ruff immediately put enforcer Andrew Peters and grinding forward Adam Mair out against a group of Senators, including Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, saying, "Go run 'em." Two nights later, the two teams played again and more fights followed, with the Senators putting their No. 1 goon, Brian McGrattan, into the lineup in place of talented defenseman Joe Corvo.

More revenge in the air. Getting even was on the agenda. The league decided not to suspend Neil for his head shot.

At the Feb. 28 trade deadline, a punctuation mark was added to the vigilante mood as Pittsburgh acquired the league's top heavyweight, Georges Laraque, ostensibly to "protect" the league's leading scorer, Sidney Crosby. It was Dominic Moore, Steve's brother, who was traded to the Wild to make room for Laraque, an irony noticed by few.

The notion, which was propagated mostly by those who believe fighting is an antidote to other problems in the game, was that Laraque would ride shotgun for Crosby as Dave Semenko once did for Wayne Gretzky. Crosby hasn't been abused a great deal this season, but those inclined to legitimize the need for goons in the game whipped up the perception that he was under attack nearly every night and needed a bodyguard.

The concept of an eye for an eye is still very much alive. Also prevalent is the idea that teams can't wait for the NHL to maintain law and order and are prepared to exact justice in their own way.

Case in point: this past Friday. Tomas Kaberle of the Toronto Maple Leafs was flattened with a late, high hit by New Jersey enforcer Cam Janssen, precisely the type of Laraque-like player who believes in "the code."

Instead of policing the game, it was Janssen who needed to be policed. Kaberle fell heavily into the boards and was sent to the hospital with a concussion, and Janssen eventually was suspended for three games. The impotence of the response has many crying out for the Leafs to take revenge when the two clubs meet March 20 in Toronto.

"For [Janssen], it's not a big deal," Leafs forward Darcy Tucker said. "For the rest of his teammates, it's going to be a big deal. He has to understand his two minutes a game isn't going to matter. It's the rest of the [Devils] who play 20 minutes a game that are going to have to answer for what he did."

In other words, it's not over.

More to the point, the message was that the suspension meted out by the league wasn't enough; the Leafs, apparently, will deal out more adequate punishment. And if something happens to another Devils player, or to Janssen, how will the NHL account for it?

Yes, hockey is an emotional game played by emotional men in the NHL, and there's plenty of history to suggest this is the way it's always been and this is the way it must stay. Certainly, those who buy into that way of thinking do so with vigor. Oppose them, and they respond with curses, threats and volume.

The pro-fighting, pro-vigilantism crowd was egged on in the fall with the release of a curious study by a group at Colorado College. It suggested that teams that incur more major penalties, such as for fighting, actually win more games.

Forget that the Hurricanes won the Cup in June without an enforcer in the lineup all season and without exacting a pound of flesh from Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, whose hit in March knocked out star Carolina forward Erik Cole with a serious neck injury.

Forget that at the time of the Naples GM meetings, the Detroit Red Wings had only six fighting majors and were neck and neck with Burke's Ducks in the standings.

So, has the NHL progressed since Moore was felled by Bertuzzi?

Well, hockey might have slightly. This year, the Ontario Hockey League, one of the key junior feeder leagues to the NHL, enacted a new set of rules for head checking, designed to rid the game of that particular problem.

The NHL? Hard to say. This season has been fairly uneventful in terms of brawling and disciplinary problems, but after fighting dropped in 2005-06, it's back up again. The overall mood -- given the GM meetings, the Buffalo-Ottawa confrontations and the newfound legitimacy accorded to a player like Laraque -- is returning to pre-lockout notions of frontier justice.

The NHL seems disinclined to intervene. With accusations in the wind that its game is less rambunctious than it was before the lockout, the Bettman administration has seemed more oriented toward allowing more rough stuff as an answer to its critics.

Notoriety, it appears, will do if popularity remains elusive.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."