The Disabled List: The Todd Bertuzzi Knock-Out Club

In which readers are reminded that all genders suffer sports injuries, and that no one is safe from Todd Bertuzzi.
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One way to exclude women from a conversation is to ignore us completely—just don’t look at us! Don’t say anything! It’s most effective because, this way, no one has to know it’s happening; the roles we play just play themselves out.

Will definitely harm you.But in the first installment of “The Disabled List,” the exclusion of women athletes was so glaring that it felt like an invitation. It read like this:

“I know you’ve been a part of this conversation before, the one that starts with a bunch of guys talking last night’s game but somehow devolves into an argument about who in his glory days suffered the worst sports injury.”[1]

When an article has only one footnote, it takes on special emphasis. Informally, in fine print, this was Brian K. Blickenstaff’s conclusion:

[1]“And I really do mean he. Women, in my experience, tend to steer clear of this sort of conversation.”

Dear boys: There are all kinds of women in this world you might not imagine. When it comes to injuries, visit any college training room and you’ll find us doing our rehab exercises, our bodies riddled with problems that can’t be neatly solved, our surgeries still raw. We are everywhere—seeking full range of motion, waiting for our turn on the ultrasound machine, and pulling on those rubber bands. We are immersed in ice baths (allow your imagination to wander and you might even like it). Hey, girls are Olympians.

As a hockey goalie at Harvard I fell to injury, ankle to brain. In the end, I wasn’t built for it and my personal disabled list is disgusting. But my most absurd sports injury wasn’t something I did to my body. It was something Todd Bertuzzi did. Bertuzzi’s brutality is world famous, but when we met, he was a teenager, that’s all. He was a scrapper from Sudbury, Ontario, a place we call the near-north, but which is still pretty far. He had no contracts, no money in his pocket, probably one pair of nice pants, and was living as a billet with a family not his own, in Guelph, Ontario. He was playing in “The O.” Bertuzzi was not yet an NHL power forward or a member of Team Canada, nor had he yet committed the worst hockey atrocity in recorded history. That would be, in 2004, when, as a Vancouver Canuck, he chased Colorado’s Steve Moore around the ice, pawed at him, then ended his career with a single spine-splitting punch to the back of the neck. It’s true that Bertuzzi had been suspended for 15 games of his rookie OHL season with the Guelph Storm for kicking a Kitchener Ranger, but no one cared about that. We hated the Rangers, and we loved him so much we were happily blind to his faults. We cheered for him so hard his faults became ours.

From 1991-1995, Bertuzzi was one of the most dominant players in the O, along with his boy-wonder teammate Jeff O’Neill, whose appeal was not Bertuzzi’s brute force, but constant finesse, to the point of being fancy on occasion. Bertuzzi’s signature move was moveless. He tore through center ice, careened down the wing—his only challenge was to keep up with himself—and took the puck straight to the net: no sweeps, shakes or shimmies. He shed defenders like clingy little brothers. Of course, his other signature move was beating the shit out of anyone who bothered him. He didn’t need to fight valiantly because his punches were so punishing that it was just a matter of hunkering down and throwing them. Fighting was work for him; he was fixing something that couldn’t be fixed by any other method. He fought a lot, sometimes his own teammates in practice.

I was eleven, and though my body was still a child’s, I was already on my way to becoming one of Canada's elite goalie prospects. For extra ice-time, I attended the Fred Prior Goalie School in Guelph, at old Exhibition Arena, a couple blocks from my house. It was a mid-level camp, not punishing. The coaches yelled sporadically, not incessantly. The skating drills were kept to a minimum for the sake of the kids who weren't in great shape: no suicides. The dry-land trainers didn't care if you cheated on the depth of your plyometrics. As far as hockey camps in Ontario go, this was relaxed.

I was the only girl, but I played rep, AAA boys’ league—it was a lifestyle. My body was still perfect then and my job was simple: learn how to use it. For beating everyone at skating drills, and for general leadership swag—for the pop and lock of my perfect kick saves—I was selected to take shots from Bertuzzi in a demonstration, also a celebration. He came one day as a special guest. I must have also been chosen for this spectacle because I was the girl, right? In any case, all prizes are dubious, and this ended up being one of the worst honors I have ever received.

They called me over and I took off my blocker to shake his huge hand. He laughed at me, and I don’t know why, but it might have had something to do with my pony tail, or with the look of complete worship on my innocent face. I went to all the Storm games and loved him tremendously. I followed his play with and without the puck. I watched how he sat restlessly on the bench and in the penalty box. He spat like it was a curse word, and I tried to imitate that. But I couldn’t begin to explain my love to him there and then, so I took my hand back, shoved it into my blocker, and looked down. The way he played made me happy, that was all.

I skated to my crease to shouts and stick slaps of twenty or thirty fellow goalies. Fred Prior, the head coach, dropped some pucks at the top of the slot. To my horror, Bertuzzi picked a puck and slid down the throat of the slot to the hashmarks. I pushed back, feeling that he was too close. This left more net exposed, but bought me a part-second of reaction time. Then he wound up. One would expect him to take a wrist shot or snap shot at an 11-year-old, but his stick rose high over his shoulder in a whipish arc. Boys my age couldn’t take slap shots yet. But Bertuzzi’s stick chopped down an inch or two behind the puck with a loud slap. It was a perfect shot. The puck did not graze or deflect off my helmet, but sunk into the middle of my face-cage. I dropped unconscious, as if shot in the head—which I was—my body limp in a pile of equipment. Since concussions weren’t considered injuries then, I was dragged by the loose fabric of my jersey to the corner, where I woke to the indelicate smell of burnt rubber. When a shot is hard enough, the impact burns the skin of the puck. I think he shot at my head as hard as he could: the two front bars of my steel face-cage were bent far in.

Always a master of efficiency—nothing pretty—Bertuzzi needed one shot to do me. He was a young guy with a lot going on, and he probably didn’t want to be there that day. At the time, I didn’t think about it. I was embarrassed. But now I hope that he was showing off—just doing the artfully unexpected!—or that he wasn’t thinking at all. I hope he wasn’t trying to kill me. It's a thought I generously extend to all the people who gave me concussions in a career that had a few too many of them.

Illustration by Gillian Wilson.

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