The Ethics of Fighting in Hockey: The Bertuzzi-Moore Incident

I use the example of the infamous Steve Moore-Todd Bertuzzi incident to illustrate how violence in hockey has evolved in the last 16 years.  In 2004 during a Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche game, Todd Bertuzzi of the Canucks grabbed Steve Moore’s jersey from behind while punching him.  The pair fell onto the ice with the full weight of Bertuzzi coming down on Steve Moore’s body, with nothing to break the fall.  The instigation of the fight came as retaliation.  Five games prior, Steve Moore injured Vancouver’s captain Markus Naslund which resulted in a concussion, a bone chip, and 3 missed games due to the injuries.

The injuries and legal battle that came from the Moore-Bertuzzi situation were vaster and more impactful than the league ever had to process before.  Steve Moore suffered 3 fractured vertebrae, a grade-three concussion, vertebral ligament damage, stretching of the brachial plexus nerves, facial lacerations, and endured significant post-concussive symptoms (KTVU).  Todd Bertuzzi was suspended the rest of the regular season and the playoffs, which totaled 20 games.  He also forfeited over half a million dollars in salary.  He was formally charged with assault causing bodily harm in the summer of 2004.  After several years of legal battles, an out-of-court settlement was reached in Moore’s lawsuit.  The extent of Moore’s injuries remains unknown, and his career was finished after the incident.

Four ethical sport principles

Promise keeping (1)

Constitutive rules “guide play within the sport; they are the regulations that make a particular game what it is.” These rules specify the dimensions of the playing surface, the duration of the contest, allowable equipment and material, what end is to be attained, and the permitted means used to achieve it” (Malloy, Ross, Zakus, 2003, p. 124).  Proscriptive rules proscribe certain behaviors in sport (Malloy, et. al, p. 124).  Full contact sports such as hockey, have several proscriptive rules with the intent of limiting the degree of violence and reduce the number of incidents that result in injuries.

In 1922, the National Hockey League drafted Rule 56 into its official rulebook.  This deemed “fisticuffs” or fighting, officially part of the game.  A more modern take on this rule gives players very wide latitude in the penalties they may receive.  Thus, fighting is technically a rule violation.  NHL commissioner Gary Bettman considers fighting a “thermostat” for the game, in which players may let out aggression to potentially “prevent other injuries” (Flanagan, 2020).

“By taking up a position on the field of play, an athlete signifies his or her tacit agreement to abide by the rules of that particular sport” (Malloy, et. al, p. 125).  This tells us that both parties have the option to fight if necessary.  Both parties are aware of the in-game consequences, but I believe the injuries related to fighting are not considered.  In the Bertuzzi-Moore situation, this was less of a fight and more of a bad fall as the result of a sucker-punch.  However, both teams agree that this is a violent, full contact sport where fighting may happen.

Respect for Persons (2)

            It is vital to remember that sports are played by fallible, complex beings.  People are capable of responding to environments in two contrasting modes: “with behavior originating in the psychobiological structures shared with lower forms of life, or with behavior originating in the more elaborate and highly developed cognitive structures characteristic of human beings, that is, self-consciousness and reflection” (Malloy, et. al, p.127).

            Where hockey players may fail to recognize their status as humans and teammates lies in the action of retaliation.  An overemphasis on winning can lead some down a path of a willingness to cheat or hurt others.  Bertuzzi acted in an “I-it” relationship with his opponent.  This relationship is characterized by the impossibility of a relationship between the “I” and the “it.”  For Todd Bertuzzi, Steve Moore was an obstacle to overcome.  This mode of thinking was highly prevalent in the early-2000s, as noted by the Bertuzzi-Moore incident.  

Responsibility and/or Duty (3)

            “By virtue of being a contestant, be it in an individual or team sport, a ‘performance’ is expected, indeed required, of each contestant” (Malloy, et. al, p. 131).  Obligation in sport encompasses the relationship between responsibility and duty.  Responsibility can be everchanging with different scenarios, and every participant in sport is responsible for their behavior.  Agency prevails as the sport participant willingly acknowledges their intentional actions.  It is not the referee or umpire who delegates in what action by the individual is taken.

            Malloy, et. al, (2003) define duty as a limited notion, one that is generally confined to specific actions and realms of behavior (p. 132).  Todd Bertuzzi was responsible for the injuries of Steve Moore, while, according to his own agency and unwritten code of conduct in the NHL, fulfilled his duty to retaliate.

Balance (4)

            The issue of balance appears when an overemphasis is placed on winning.  Malloy, et. al, (2003) asks, “does an emphasis on winning create an imbalance in the ethos surrounding sport?” (p. 134).  I believe it can, and it is the responsibility of the leagues to monitor this imbalance.  When both parties strive for excellence in a mutually agreed upon pretext of balance and respect the best attributes of a fair contest are preserved.

            Here, Bertuzzi was not solely responsible for creating an imbalance to the game.  However, he clearly contributed to it.  The game was violent early.  “NHL executive vice-president Colin Campbell and director of officiating Andy van Hellemond placed a phone call to referees Dennis LaRue and Stephen Walkom in the officials’ room to discuss the potential for additional fights or other events during the lopsided game” (CBC Sports Online). 

Conclusion

            While the aforementioned incident between the Canucks and Avalanche sounds bleak, I believe that violence in hockey is in a steep decline.  The National Hockey League does not have a written code of conduct when it comes to on-ice violence specifically, but the game has indeed policed itself.  I believe change in the ethos of professional hockey came with the evolution of the players on the ice.  Modern day hockey players are now praised for finesse, and the ability to read the game instinctively.  With this change in the make-up of what it takes to be a professional player, the days of the brutal “tough-guy” attitude of players is almost completely washed out. It is simply not valued anymore.

            On the other hand, professional hockey has proved that players policing themselves can work. Player retaliation is not uncommon, yet it is usually doled out when marquee players are the target of heavy hits.  I do not believe violence is necessary in sport, yet I believe self-policing works.  I specially used the example from 2004 to illustrate how in a relatively short amount of time, the values of a league and its players can evolve.  Fighting may never go away in hockey, but overt violence in hockey has been mitigated almost to its extinction.  

References

A blow-by-blow account. (2004, March 11). Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20110628234837/http://www.cbc.ca/sports/indepth/bertuzzi/timeline/

Avalanche Release Update On Moore’s Condition. (2004, March 22). Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20110713173546/http://www.ktvu.com/nhl/2941181/detail.html

Malloy, D. C., Ross, S., & Zakus, D. H. (2003). Sport Ethics: Concepts and Cases in Sport and Recreation (2nd ed.). Thompson Educational Publishing.

Flanagan, G. (2020, February 24). Why fighting is allowed in pro hockey – and why the NHL has no plans to ban it. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/fighting-nhl-hockey-violence-sports-code-referee-2017-2

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