Hockey: Hockey's criminal code keeps hooligans on the ice

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The Independent Online

Among those things that never change in sport is the unremitting hardness of the average ice hockey player. It is a necessity underlined by this week's sensational case in Canada, where Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks has been banned for the rest of the season for a vicious punch which sent Colorado's Steve Moore to hospital with a fractured neck. There is now talk of a police prosecution in the wake of a headline in the Toronto Sun which asked: "Does somebody have to die?"

These developments may be shocking to any casual visitor to the game that so inflames one of the world's most decently spirited nations, but for others it must be simply a matter of déjà vu.

Todd Bertuzzi's action was in the classic tradition of the ice hockey "goon" - or the enforcer, the man who is hired principally to protect a team's star player and also spread as much terror as he can through the opposite bench.

The most intriguing hockey goon I ever met was Dave "Tiger" Williams, who played for Bertuzzi's Vancouver Canucks along with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings. He grew up in a wood frame house on the Saskatchewan prairie, where he played for the Swift Current Broncos, a tough apprenticeship indeed. Once, over a few glasses of whiskey and some smoked bear - he shot the bear with arrows he made in a room he ironically entitled the library - he explained how it was playing junior hockey in Flin Flon, a mining town deep in the Manitoba tundra.

"Flin Flon," the Tiger told me, "was where you found out about yourself as a hockey player. If you didn't get scared in Flin Flon, you could be pretty sure you were going to be OK.

"I used to start psyching myself up when the old iron lung [team bus] got within 500 miles of Flin Flon. There was no point in going into that town and waiting for things to happen. You had to impose yourself on events. Walking into the rink you'd get heckled. Some of the fans, liquored up, would try to make trouble. They'd say things like, 'You get near the boards and we'll knock your teeth out'.

"But you would just walk through them contemptuously. It was a small rink and though there were screens behind the goaltenders there were none along the sides, so if a Flin Flon player didn't get you with a stick or a fist, a fan probably would. In one game, one of our players pointed out a fan who had been baiting him and told me, 'The next time the puck goes over there, I'm going to pretend to hit one of their players, but really I'm going to cross-check that guy and knock every goddamned tooth out of his head'.

"Unfortunately when he threw his cross-check the guy ducked, and the guy behind him ducked, and a teenage girl was hit straight in the mouth. We had a bit of trouble getting out of town that night."

Williams, who was the most penalised player in the history of the National Hockey League, was in 1977 prosecuted by the Ontario Attorney General. It was charged that on the occasion of a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Williams had in his possession an offensive weapon, a hockey stick, and he did assault Dennis Owchar, a Pittsburgh player who required 46 stitches to a head wound.

The defence was that Williams was a hockey foot soldier. It had always been as he said, "Nobody had ever said to me, 'Go get number eight' or 'Fix that sonofabitch Joe Blow'. Not ever. Not back on the river [the frozen one on which he played his first games], not in Peewee or Bantam or Midget, not even in junior or professional hockey. It was something you knew, instinctively.

"No one had to draw pictures to show you what you needed to do to get on in the game. For someone like me it couldn't have been more simple. I fought - or I disappeared."

Williams was acquitted. Barring a massive act of hypocrisy, so too will be Bertuzzi.