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Playing Piano in a Brothel (2010)
                   
           From Part 7: Pucks
 

     The Avalanche had a 32–11–10–4 record when they faced Vancouver at home

on February 16, 2004.

      

In the second period, Avalanche rookie winger Steve Moore, a Harvard

graduate from the Toronto suburb of Thornhill, delivered an unpenalized,

open-ice hit on Vancouver captain Markus Naslund. Until that point, Moore

was having a nice, if unspectacular, rookie season, showing that he probably

could have a journeyman’s career in the league as a third- or fourth-line

center. Naslund suffered facial cuts and a minor concussion. The Canucks

won 1–0 and all but announced after the game that they would seek revenge.

I was among those in the Canucks’ dressing room that night and was part of

the questioning of Canucks winger Todd Bertuzzi.

 

Bertuzzi noted that the Canucks and Avalanche meet twice more “so

hopefully, they keep [Moore] up. . . . It’s called respect in the league. Players

like that kid coming up, just shows what kind of respect we have around this

league. Here’s a guy reaching out, and the puck’s not even there, and a guy

blindsides a guy like that. It’s unfortunate that the game was where it was at,

because it would have been a different situation.”

 

I asked him if he meant the Canucks might have retaliated if the game

hadn’t been close.

 

“Absolutely,” Bertuzzi said. “That’s the best player in the NHL. That’s for

the refs to police. They didn’t do it.”

 

Canucks winger Trevor Linden, who doubled as the president of the

players’ association, called the play “a blatant attempt by a marginal player to

hurt our guy.”

 

Nearby, Canucks winger Brad May made what turned out to be an

infamous remark to Vancouver Sun writer Iain MacIntyre, referring to a

“bounty” on Moore.

 

Outside the locker room door, Canucks coach Marc Crawford delivered a

stinging rebuke to Moore and the referees. “They talk about players not having

respect for players. How about the officials?” the former Avalanche coach asked.

“Should they not have respect for the leading scorer in the league? When does

that come? It could have been an obstruction call, it could have been an elbow

call, and it could have been anything. Instead they call absolutely nothing. That

was a cheap shot by a young kid on a captain, leading scorer in the league, and

we get no call. We get no call. Th at is ridiculous. How does that happen? That’s

got to be answered. Why is there no respect from those referees for the leading

scorer in the league? I do not understand that for the life of me. I don’t care if

they fine me. I really don’t. That needs to be answered.”

 

After that tirade, Crawford stormed off. I was told that his smirk when he

came into the dressing room made it clear he had been performing and making

a point: his stars needed protecting, too. If there was any irony, it was that Marc

Crawford the player was a lot more like Steve Moore than Markus Naslund.

 

After hearing all that, I scrambled over to the Avalanche dressing room

to get Moore’s explanation and his reaction to what we had just heard.

 

“I came out of the zone and the puck looked like it was going to come out

to the neutral zone,” Moore said. “It went right to their guy, and I just came

out and finished my check. I didn’t even know who it was. I just finished my

check the way we always do, and I guess it ended up being Naslund, and I

guess they weren’t too happy about that. I’m certainly not looking to hurt

him or anything, just a clean body check with a shoulder.”

 

He added, “People can look at the tape and see what they think. The refs

didn’t call a penalty and I heard them yelling, ‘It was a clean check, it was a clean

check.’ Certainly, I just hit him with my shoulder. If that’s a cheap shot. . . .”

  
Frankly, nothing that happened or was said that night in response to the

Moore hit was all that objectionable. Crawford took the same stance when

he coached the Avalanche and called for officiating respect and protection for

Forsberg and Sakic. I considered his rant lobbying, the sort I heard all the

time in decades of being around the sport. At times, it seems contradictory

because it runs against what the culture proclaims as the all-for-one, one-forall

fabric of the sport. But it wasn’t getting Michael Jordan to the line every

time he was touched or looking the other way when he didn’t dribble for five

strides on the way to the hoop. It’s physical protection in a tough sport.

 

Although I didn’t hear it directly, I assumed May’s “bounty” remark was

a dark and slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to Slap Shot, the movie every

NHL player has seen repeatedly. In the film, Paul Newman’s character, Reg

Dunlop, says, “I am personally placing a $100 bounty on the head of Tim

McCracken. He’s the coach and chief punk on that Syracuse team.”

 

The teams met again in Denver two weeks later, and I talked with Moore

about the upcoming game following a morning skate in Columbus and also

set out to tell readers more about the player who, until the Naslund hit, had

stayed under the radar.

  

The youngest of three hockey-playing brothers from the Toronto

suburbs, then age twenty-five, Moore seemed an unlikely villain. “We played

just about every sport you can imagine growing up,” Moore said. “We played

a lot of tennis in the summers, and our dad was on Team Canada in his age

group. But, obviously, academics were important in our house.”

 

All three boys gravitated to hockey. One by one, they attended Harvard

and played for the Crimson. Mark was a defenseman who signed with the

Pittsburgh Penguins’ organization. A year behind Mark, Steve starred for

four seasons, becoming the Crimson’s all-time scoring leader. But his record

only lasted two years—until his younger brother, Dominic, broke it. By then,

Steve was the only player in the Avalanche organization with an Ivy League

degree in environmental sciences and public policy.

 

“It was liberal arts, so you take a very wide range of courses,” Steve said.

“So while it was a concentration in environmental sciences and public policy,

it was kind of a general degree. It’s not necessarily something geared for a

vocation. It may or may not translate into something in that area down the

road.”

 

Moore played twelve games for Colorado in times of injury sieges

in the previous two seasons, but he wasn’t viewed as much more than an

organizational insurance policy. In 2003–04, he got the summons from

Hershey of the American Hockey League again because of the Avs’ recurring

injury problems, and by late season, he seemed to have cemented a spot on

the playoff roster.

 

Meanwhile, the storm was continuing to build. In the wake of the hit,

Vancouver general manager Brian Burke—who, ironically, received his law

degree from Harvard after playing hockey at Providence—labeled it “a headhunting

shot on a star player by a marginal player.” 

 

“I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do out there: finish checks,” Moore

said. “I understand that when a player the stature of Markus Naslund gets

hurt, maybe some questions are going to be asked. I understand that. He’s

a phenomenal player. You don’t want him hurt. I don’t want him hurt. I

understand that he’s their best player, he’s their leader, he’s a huge part of

their team. I can understand why they’re upset. I’m not going to comment

on the rest.”

 

So what happened during that March 3 game in Denver? Nothing. It was

a 5–5 tie and gratuitous stupidity would have been potentially costly. Also,

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and discipline czar Colin Campbell were

at the game. Bettman told us after the first period that he was on the way to

an appointment on the West Coast and just felt like stopping in Denver to

watch a game. Yeah, right. Bettman played down the Canucks’ remarks about

Moore.

 

“More often than not, the remarks in the heat of the moment dissipate

by the time the actual game is played,” said Bettman. He smiled and added,

“Although we still have two periods to play.”

 

Five days later, the teams played again in Vancouver, and again it was

my turn to be there. With the game still scoreless at 6:36 of the first period,

Moore was challenged to a fight at a faceoff by Vancouver forward Matt

Cooke and held his own. By some standards, he had answered the call, and

that should have been it. Moore had one of the goals as the Avalanche roared

to a 5–0 lead early in the third period. Then it happened. With Bertuzzi

stalking Moore coming up the ice, Bertuzzi threw a roundhouse punch from

behind to Moore’s head, drove him to the ice near the red line, and kept

punching. The most ridiculous thing to come out of the incident was the

contention that Moore suffered his injuries when teammates joined the pile,

trying to break it up. It could have been worse if Avalanche center Andrei

Nikolishin hadn’t interceded and pinned Bertuzzi’s arms. Bertuzzi wasn’t

going to stop punching on his own.

  
In this era of “homer,” ridiculously slanted broadcasts—at the teams’

insistence—the Vancouver radio crew showed a lot of courage. Play-by-play

man John Shorthouse saw it happen and immediately called it a “cheap shot,

sucker punch from behind.” Analyst Tom Larscheid, a former Canadian

Football League player and certainly not a shrinking violet, exclaimed, “Oh,

I hate that!”

 

I wasn’t watching the ice when it happened. We face tough deadlines

on all West Coast games, and with the outcome not at all in doubt, I was

writing. So was Aaron Lopez of the Rocky Mountain News, who was next

to me. Plus, this was the eve of the trading deadline, and the Avalanche had

announced after the first period that they had acquired forward Matthew

Barnaby from the New York Rangers, and we met Lacroix for a briefing.

 

So we were writing that sidebar story, too. We were like everyone else who

hadn’t been focused on the incident, which happened behind the puck: we

had to catch up by watching replays.

 

In the ensuing mayhem, with Moore down on the ice amid blood,

Crawford was shown on television behind the bench, smirking. That remains

a blot on his image. I’ve often been asked how I can remain civil with him,

and I continue to say I still like Crawford. A lot, in fact. Here’s why. He’s a

walking representation of the traditional Canadian mind-set. To focus on

excoriating him as the single culprit ignores the larger issue. I thought back

to when I visited him in Chicago to do a story on him shortly after he took

over the Canucks. In a gym workout in downtown Chicago, I noted that

Canucks center Dave Scatchard had a black eye and got caught laughing

about it. Crawford looked at me and said, “My dad always told me you don’t

have to worry about the guys who look like that. You have to worry about the

guys who don’t.”

 

This all happened at 8:41 of the third period. In the mess that ensued,

Granato stood on the bench and yelled at Crawford. Moore was down on

the ice for about ten minutes before he was taken off on a gurney. Because of

the subsequent skirmishing, Avalanche enforcer Peter Worrell drew a game

misconduct, and as he headed toward the tunnel to the dressing room, he

paused and needed to be restrained from trying to get in the stands.

 

Another ridiculous view aired in the wake of the incident was that it

was somehow Granato’s fault for having Moore, the player in the eye of the

storm, on the ice at that stage of the game in a blowout. What was Granato

supposed to do, double-shift Sakic? Wouldn’t keeping Moore on the bench

have been considered cowardly, anyway?

  
After the game, with Moore off at a hospital and with no information

regarding his condition available, the atmosphere turned somber. Crawford

wasn’t smirking any longer. In the Avalanche dressing room, the rhetoric

was restrained. In a sport that prides itself on team togetherness, only

defenseman Derek Morris—who until then was most notable for being the

guy the Avalanche obtained for Chris Drury—had the nerve to take off the

muzzle.

 

“We’re not supposed to say,” Morris said. But he went on to call it “the

worst thing I’ve seen. . . . That was a premeditated act. We got a guy hurt

because of that. It was disgusting. There’s no other word for that. I haven’t

seen anything like that in my seven years of playing hockey.”

 

Granato said, “It was a game where a team was up 5–0, and obviously

something was said on their side to instigate, initiate the physical part of it.

When we’re up 5–0, there’s no need for us to do anything, to get involved in

something like that.”

 

Granato was asked who he thought might have said “something.”

 

“Something was said on their side to provoke that,” he said. “I don’t think

you just go out and start fighting for the fun of it. . . . I’m going to stand up

for my players.” He said Crawford was “responsible for their players and their

actions. I didn’t like the body language. I didn’t like the way he was standing

there when the whole thing transpired.”

 

After the game, Bertuzzi didn’t speak to the media, but Crawford was

subdued.

 

“First of all, our concerns are for Steve Moore, and we’re hoping he’s

okay,” Crawford said. He added, “Obviously, that’s not an incident anybody

likes in the game. It’s very unfortunate. Todd feels terrible. He’s very upset

right now.”

 

The reason the Canucks were upset, of course, is that everyone suddenly

realized the potential consequences. I’m not saying there wasn’t concern for

Moore, who at that moment was in the hospital, and an acknowledgment

that things had gotten out of hand, but that was secondary. The Canucks

figured out that this wasn’t going to go away. Another of the twists was that

Crawford and former Avalanche winger Mike Keane, who on that night was

playing for Vancouver, both had been so disdainful of the Red Wings waiting

for a home game to target Claude Lemieux.

 

The Avalanche stayed overnight in Vancouver. The next morning, the

team put out a release that Moore had suff ered fractured neck vertebrae, a

concussion, and cuts. The term “broken neck” also informally was used, and

that raised the specter of possible paralysis. The NHL announced Bertuzzi

was suspended indefinitely, pending a disciplinary hearing.

 

Also, the Avalanche announced that morning that Morris and the

rights to prospect defenseman Keith Ballard had been traded to Phoenix

for veteran center Chris Gratton, defenseman Ossi Vaananen, and a second-round

draft choice. The Avalanche also acquired veteran goalie Tommy Salo,

who had led the minor-league Denver Grizzlies to a championship in 1995,

from Edmonton. With all that going on, Lacroix and Granato appeared at a

news conference at a Vancouver hotel.

 

“It’s the cheapest shot I have ever seen,” Lacroix said of Bertuzzi’s hit. “All

those shots are bad and no good for our business.”

 

Lacroix said he was able to see Moore in the dressing room during the

third period.

 

“I came down to the medical room after the injury happened,” Lacroix

said. “I shook his hand, I looked at him, he looked at me. His eyes were clear,

so in a way I felt he was recovering. How long he was out [cold], I can’t tell

you.”

 

Granato said the incident cast a pall over a significant road win.

 

“You saw it after the incident,” Granato said. “You could see it on our

bench, in our faces, in the manner after the game. That’s your warrior, that’s

your brother, that’s the guy you’re going to bat with every night. Unacceptable.

Best way to say it is, it was unacceptable. It doesn’t matter what the score was,

what the time was, what the history of it was. There’s no room for that in our

game.”

 

As a player with the Los Angeles Kings, Granato underwent brain

surgery in February 1996 after suffering head injuries after being driven into

the boards.

 

“As [Moore] was being wheeled off , I thought of the history that I had

with the head injury,” Granato said. “I thought more of his family, his parents.

For his parents to go through something like that, that’s the thing I thought

of first.”

 

After the news conference, Aaron Lopez and I spoke with several players

outside the hotel. Nikolishin, the Russian center who first came to Moore’s

aid and tried to pull Bertuzzi off his teammate, said, “I saw Bertuzzi grab him

from behind and I just jumped in right away, and that was it. I saw blood spill

out and spread out. I don’t even want to talk about it. It’s tough to see.”

 

Significantly, the Avalanche said Worrell wouldn’t be able to talk with

me until later that day in Edmonton. The Avalanche had decided to make

an exception on the trip and invited Lopez and me to be in the traveling

party for the day. Our bosses agreed to it. That meant that rather than take

our ticketed commercial flights to Edmonton, where the Avalanche was

playing on March 10, we went with the team to the Vancouver General

Hospital to visit Moore and then joined the team on its chartered flight to

Edmonton.

 

When the team visited Moore, all were conscious that Aaron and I were

there and would write about the exchanges. I’m not saying the reactions

weren’t sincere, but there was a bit of a scripted feel to it, too. We waited in

the hospital’s fourteenth floor rehabilitation gym. Players leaned on workout

equipment, talking softly, and watching the double-door entrance. Moore,

sitting up in a raised bed, his neck in a long cervical brace, was pushed into

the room. His teammates applauded. If they had sticks, they would have

tapped them on the floor. There were some positive signs. He was conscious

and coherent, had the use of his limbs, and managed to smile. Avalanche

trainer Pat Karns gave a quick briefing on Moore’s condition. Moore, he told

his teammates, had cuts, a concussion, and chip fractures in the C-3 and

C-4 vertebrae in his neck.

 

“Looks worse than it is, though, right?” Moore asked.

 

In a voice not everyone in the room could hear, Moore briefly addressed

his teammates. He told them again he was going to be all right. “I just have to

wear this stylish brace for a while,” he said.

      

Granato approached the bed. “On behalf of the boys,” he said, “we just

wanted to stop and let you know how much we think of you. We’ll win some

games while you’re laid up for a while.” Granato said Moore would be in

everyone’s prayers and that they knew his family was worried and supported

him. “This part of your family,” Granato added, “is going to win a game in

Edmonton.”

 

One by one, teammates approached Moore, spoke with him, smiled, and

grasped his hand. Moore was wheeled out, and the Avalanche players filed

out.

 

After the visit, Sakic said, “It’s just nice to see him doing well, or as good

as you can expect. To see him last night after that hit, it didn’t look good. To

see him today, he had good spirits.”

 

Next, the team, plus Aaron Lopez and me, traveled to Edmonton. At

the Hotel MacDonald, I patiently waited to speak to Worrell. The reason I

had to wait was that Granato pulled him aside and had a long conversation

with him. Standing close to the huge winger and looking up at him, Granato

seemed to make several points. Worrell nodded and when I talked with him,

said nothing beyond the benign. When I asked him point-blank if the fans or

the Canucks had been directing racist comments at him, as I had heard from

some folks within earshot, he said no.

 

I’ve always assumed that Granato told Worrell the situation already was

stormy enough and that it would serve no useful purpose for him to add to

the turmoil. I don’t know that, but it’s my guess.

 

The firestorm was international in scope. I even appeared on National

Public Radio’s All Things Considered to talk about it, and I also cranked

out an ESPN.com column. As usually happens when the NHL is involved

in a controversial incident, over the next few days I saw many prominent

newspaper columnists trotted in front of cameras to discuss it. Most of them

hadn’t been to an NHL game in five years or couldn’t named five players

on the team in their own market. They kept waving their arms and yelling.

They certainly had the right to express their opinions, and one of the NHL’s

mistakes is pretending not to care when “outsiders” knock the sport, but it

was laughable how ill-informed many of them were.

 

There was plenty of blame to go around, as Moore’s legal team later

recognized with lawsuits that sought at various times to include Brian

Burke, Brad May, and Marc Crawford as defendants. The man we let off the

hook was Markus Naslund. I’m not saying he is to blame, but he could have

headed off trouble. He’s a nice guy who comes from Ornskoldsvik, Sweden,

the same hometown as Forsberg and several other NHL players. He was the

Canucks’ captain. For team-oriented reasons, he should have seen that the

preoccupation with Moore was counterproductive. At any point, he could

have stepped in and said, “Guys, I appreciate this, but enough’s enough. Let’s

get on to the business at hand.” That especially could have been the case after

Moore fought Cooke and as it became apparent that there might be some

ugliness in the third period. I’ve even wondered why Trevor Linden, the

president of the players’ union, wasn’t more of a voice of reason. Crawford’s

actions were unconscionable, but as I’ve said, I think he’s more a product of

his background. To me, the highly educated and erudite Burke’s rhetoric and

attitudes were the most bewildering.

 

What about Bertuzzi? He has to be held primarily accountable for his

own actions, because, let’s face it, not even Brad May was thinking, “Hey,

let’s take a cheap shot from behind, break the guy’s neck, end his career, and

completely screw up this team.” Because that’s what it did to the Canucks.

Yet as disdainful as I am of Bertuzzi, he was a dupe to some extent, caught in

the crosscurrents of events and rhetoric that other, more intelligent men in

positions of power could have influenced.

  
The Avalanche response was one of the major blots on the team’s tenure

in Denver. Steve Moore wasn’t popular among his teammates primarily

because he was quiet and he was a Harvard boy. (I’m not saying he was

unpopular, either.) The Avalanche initially showed considerable concern and

helped both Moore and his family. But beyond that, especially after Moore

showed signs of taking legal action, it was if Moore never played for the team.

 

When the Avalanche signed May for the post-lockout season, 2005–06, it

was the single most stupid public relations move the franchise made. May

was a major league schmoozer with the media and even folks in the league,

and to me the issue wasn’t him personally as much as the perceptions and

what the signing represented. Plus, in the Colorado dressing room, it was

as if they took down Moore’s nameplate and he ceased to exist. Part of that

was player turnover, but it was more than that. When Sakic in his final

season told me that he had taken vacations with May and Bertuzzi and that

Bertuzzi actually was a “nice guy” who had paid for his mistake, I admit I

was taken aback. Sakic said it so casually, in fact, that he didn’t seem to have

a clue that anyone would be off ended. I stifled the urge to ask, “Are you sure

want to say that?” Instead, I just wrote the story, and it indeed off ended a

lot of Avalanche fans, among others. Yes, Moore was suing Bertuzzi and the

Canucks, and it doesn’t take an Einstein intellect to figure out that the league

wouldn’t have been thrilled if the Avalanche held a Steve Moore Night or

otherwise honored him. The Avalanche had neither guts nor class when they

didn’t just go ahead and do it, the league be damned.

 

The short-term reaction highlighted some of the contradictions about

the NHL and its fans. Much of it was the knee-jerk and brainless reaction

of the loud fringe, arguing variously that: (A) Moore had it coming, and he

should have dropped the gloves and fought every Canuck that night, or (B)

Bertuzzi got a bit carried away, but do you want guys playing in skirts? Of

course, any attempt to argue rationally with that segment of fans was futile,

because it responds to any disagreement with the intellectual equivalent of

sticking out tongues: “aw, you don’t know the game!” Some of the criticism

and even grandstanding about this incident, as I’ve admitted, absolutely came

from folks who didn’t know the color of the blue line. Yet that also ignored

the fact that by far the most intelligent discourse and analysis about what

this meant about the fabric of the sport came in Canada, including from

some former NHL stars. Macleans, the Canadian news weekly, did a scathing

story on the incident, showing Bertuzzi holding Moore’s jersey and winding

up for the sucker punch on the cover.

 

As time went on, the mindless wing usually resorted to saying, “Let it

go!” We were supposed to pretend that because the NHL reinstated Bertuzzi

after a seventeen-month suspension that ran through the lockout season and

because Bertuzzi received only probation and a slap on the wrist from legal

authorities, his assault on Moore should be like a driving violation and wiped

off his record.

 

This was about a sport unwilling to hold itself up to ruthless self-examination.

 

The NHL didn’t forget the lessons learned; it never learned

them at all. The Avalanche’s indifference was the most curious, of course, but

it was part of a league-wide collective shrugging of shoulders. Even Hockey

Canada, which aired wonderful television ads promoting respect in its sport

from the stands to the rink itself, sent mixed messages by inviting Bertuzzi to

its 2006 Olympic orientation camp after the NHL reinstated him and then

including him on the team that didn’t win a medal at Turin. The desire to

move on seemed to have more to do with amnesia and rationalization than

forgiveness and a feeling that Bertuzzi had been penalized enough.

 

In August 2005, I visited Moore in Thornhill. I talked with him on the

phone for several weeks as he visited the Cleveland Clinic periodically for

testing but didn’t write anything as we laid the groundwork for a visit. When

I got to Thornhill, he wouldn’t discuss the specific incident. His attorney,

Tim Danson, told him not to. We did have long talks and also visited the

local rink where he had played as a youngster. At the time, he still, officially

at least, was hoping to get clearance from doctors to play.

 

“The concussion is more the issue, for sure,” he told me. “Most of the

time I’m positive that I’m going to get better. I’ve come a long way and I’m

gaining. Things pop in my head every once in a while that shouldn’t, but to

be honest, I don’t think like that very often.”

 

I was convinced that even if he was pronounced physically able to play,

the chances of the Avalanche or another NHL team signing him were slim.

He would have been marked as physically suspect, and he had violated the

“code” with his lawsuit.

 

“I think anybody who understands the situation that I was in, and that I

am in, would probably do the same thing,” Moore said. “I’d like to think that

part of putting this whole ugly incident behind me is that I would hope to be

back with the Avalanche. And I hope that they realize I’ve done everything I

can to make this not more of a spectacle. I’ve been trying to focus on getting

better, and I hope that they’re aware of that.”

 

Eventually, Moore gave up on attempting to return to the game. His

lawsuit against Bertuzzi and the Canucks was filed in Ontario. In late 2009,

Danson told me that all the pretrial maneuvering finally was winding down

and that he was hoping the lawsuit ended up assigned a court date of late

2010. (And we thought our court system was slow.) By then, Bertuzzi’s

camp successfully maneuvered to have Crawford added as a defendant. All

along, I was ambivalent about the lawsuit. Part of me believes there’s an

implied consent involved in playing professional sports, and you’re agreeing

you’ll leave issues up to the leagues involved. Part of me wants the courts to

stay out of sports, period. But this ended a career. I’ve come around to the

appropriateness of the lawsuit. It wasn’t so roundly criticized when Dennis

Polonich sued Wilf Paiement, as I recall, and Polonich even came back and

played several more seasons in the NHL.

 

The Avalanche, meanwhile, continued to pretend Moore had been

deleted from the team’s annals.

 

Update: Moore's lawsuit against Bertuzzi now is scheduled to go to trial in

September 2014.