Tyler Bertuzzi was born on February 24, 1995. He played his first season in the OHL last year, fighting four times in his first four games, five in his first six games and 14 times before he turned 17 on February 24, 2012. He is, I think it’s fair to say, the kind of player who hits dirty and late and cheap. He spent a healthy part of the 2011-12 season getting beaten up as a result.
In both of those fights, the other guy kept punching Bertuzzi past the point at which it’s generally considered appropriate to do so. When you look at the hits that preceded those fights, it becomes clear why. In the first hit, Bertuzzi’s at the bottom of the circle when it becomes clear the defenceman is going to turn; he proceeds to hit from behind and drive his head into the glass anyway. In the second hit, Bertuzzi is 20+ feet away from the defenceman when he releases the puck but he proceeds to blindside him in a dangerous position relative to the boards. I’m no expert on the minds of teenage boys but I’ve played some hockey and those hits are going to make most teams go bananas.
Bertuzzi ended up putting up 117 PIM last year. The breakdown is as follows:
15 – Fighting majors
4 – Head check
2 – Check from behind
4 – Slash
7 – Rough (coincidental)
10 minute misconduct
So that’s 6 PIM that arise out of the actual playing of hockey and 111 PIM related to hitting guys from behind, hitting them in the head, slashing them, fighting, posturing after the whistle and generally behaving in an unsportsmanlike fashion. In an interview with the Sudbury Star, he talked about this a little bit:
Bertuzzi didn’t go looking for fights, but his style of play made it a necessity.
“After a big hit, they don’t like it and come and fight,” he said. “Most my fights were like that, from hitting guys. But that’s part of the game.”
Bertuzzi ended up scoring 17 points for the season, narrowly beating the number of fights that he had. He probably would have easily had more fights than points, but for a reduction in the frequency of his fights in the second half of the season. He explained to the Sudbury Star:
After establishing himself in the first half of the season, Bertuzzi made a conscious decision to slow down the fighting in the second half of the season, only dropping the mitts four times, to concentrate more on hockey.
“I slowed down because I wanted to play a bit more and show my skill more,” said the nephew of former Storm standout and longtime NHLer Todd Bertuzzi. “At the end (of the season), I was on the third line and on the penalty kill and got even more confidence, so I decided to slow down on fighting and concentrate on playing. I’ll drop them when I have to and fighting did serve a purpose.”
He also suffered a mild concussion mid way through the season and that played a part in the decision to fight less.
“I’m good now,” he said. “It had a little bit of impact on my fighting because I didn’t want to have two (concussions) in a year. But mostly it was because if you’re fighting you are in the box for five minutes and you can’t play.”
He doesn’t say precisely when he was concussed but if you go through the games that he missed, you find that he missed three games in a row on February 3, 5 and 7, 2012. He had only two fights after that date; he had three fights each in January and December. It’d be interesting to know what the cause of the concussion – he had a fight on January 28, 2012 against a guy named Holden Cook. It sounds like a pretty wild fight, although the video of it is pretty poor:
You’ll notice that, before the camera guy gets the camera on the fight, the announcer says “Cook knocks Bertuzzi’s mouthguard out.” At the 13 second mark in that video, Bertuzzi looks to get smoked in the face, which leads the colour guy to say “Knees buckling in this one.” Bertuzzi maybe looks a little wobbly skating off the ice; tough to say.
Was this fight the cause of Bertuzzi’s concussion? He played the next game before sitting out for three, which is proof of exactly nothing given hockey’s historically poor treatment of concussions. At the very least, you wonder. I’ve asked him on Twitter; we’ll see if he says anything.
What’s my point? Well it’s in my usual vein when it comes to junior hockey: if you look to closely at it, you (should) start to feel a little dirty. Bertuzzi’s story last year appears to be one of small guy goes to junior camp, desperate to make team. He proceeds to hit everything that moves without much worry about whether the hits are safe or marginal. The coach – who made a career from being a small guy who hit everything that moved – loves him and he makes the team. The price of throwing these marginal hits is fighting much larger mammals, which he does with great frequency, albeit not a great deal of effectiveness.
You’ll notice that I made a big deal out of Bertuzzi’s age at the start of this piece. He was 16 for most of the season. I was flipping through the regulations for boxing and MMA in Ontario and came across this:
7. No person who is seventeen years of age or under shall take part in a professional contest or exhibition except with the approval of the Commissioner.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society have suggested that boxing be banned for people below the age of 18. Other medical groups would like to see it banned entirely.
The law banning professional fighting in Ontario for people under the age of 17 is presumably intended to protect young people, whose brains are uniquely susceptible to the impact of concussions and who won’t necessarily have the capacity to understand the risks that they’re undertaking, from themselves. It is, I assume, akin to the reason that we stop teenagers from buying cigarettes or beer. Getting punched in the head, like smoking or drinking, can have significant consequences and we don’t trust people under the age of 17 to make those decisions when provided with a financial incentive.
It’s impossible for me to see how Bertuzzi’s presence in junior hockey last year was anything other than exactly that which we try to ban with our laws against people under the age of 17 fighting professionally. Bertuzzi is being compensated (although probably not well enough) for playing for the Guelph Storm. He has the possibility of future NHL dollars motivating him as well. He’ll do anything to make the team – in his case, “anything” includes hitting people in the head or hitting them from behind, exposing them to risk that isn’t supposed to be part of hockey. (If Bertuzzi is unclear on this principle, his uncle may be able to explain it to him in some detail.) As a result of this, he ends up fighting 15 times and (possibly) suffers a concussion along the way. He wins the Guelph Storm Fan Favourite Award for his efforts.
The OHL’s response to this sort of thing is to announce suspensions for people who fight more than ten times. The law, for some reason, does nothing. Guelph sold tickets last year to people eager to watch a 16 year old fight. If he was fighting in a cage or fighting in a boxing ring, one fight would be illegal. Just add ice though, and everything’s ok. Try and keep it under ten a year? Maybe?
Junior hockey is a pretty sick sport. This is just another example of that. People who buy tickets to watch their favourite 16 year old boy fight 18, 19 and 20 year old guys are sick. It’s weird that the part of society that doesn’t suffer from this sickness is somehow willing to tolerate it, when it acts sort of sensibly in limiting the rights of minors to fight for money elsewhere. Hockey cures all sins, I guess. And renders irrelevant medical data.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org