SHADOW LOOMS OVER WINGS’ ACQUISITION

Everyone casts a shadow. Some are bigger than others. Todd Bertuzzi, like it or not, throws one thick and dark as the frontiersman beard he once sported, back in the days when his roughhouse tactics and ready fists were admired, even envied.

You remember those days, right? When Bertuzzi clotheslined Chris Chelios in a playoff game and instantly became the bull’s-eye on every Detroit fan’s dartboard?

That was 2002. It was loud and mean. But it was mild compared to what happened two years later, when Bertuzzi dipped himself in villain’s ink by attacking Colorado rookie forward Steve Moore. Moore was a target for revenge, having leveled Bertuzzi’s teammate, Markus Naslund, three weeks earlier.

But what Bertuzzi did in the third period of that Canucks-Avalanche game went way beyond tit-for-tat. Many thought it was criminal. Bertuzzi chased after Moore, pulled his jersey from behind, then threw a roundhouse sucker punch that sent Moore to the ice. Bertuzzi drove into him, and others piled on.

When the pile cleared, Moore didn’t move. He had three broken vertebrae in his neck.

He was taken off on a stretcher.

He has not played hockey since.

Bertuzzi was suspended for 17 months.

A bigger mistake than most

Those are not opinions. Those are facts. Bertuzzi does not deny them. He knows they – and their judgments – follow him.

“There’s nothing you can really do,” he told me Tuesday, on the phone from Florida, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a forgotten thing. It’s three years ago. And you would think that people would let it go.

“But there’s always people in cities that want to hold on and want to criticize and bash you…. It’s something I deal with.”

Now it is something Detroit will deal with. Or won’t. I’d bet on the latter. In hockey, the only thing that draws a bigger buzz than an opponent’s fists is a hometown player’s fists.

Die-hard Wings fans will accept Bertuzzi because he is now one of theirs. They will view the Bertuzzi-Moore incident as an unfortunate case of fight meeting fate. “A couple inches in the other direction,” they will say, “and Moore might have been fine.”

Maybe they are right. Maybe not.

Soon won’t matter. The 32-year-old Bertuzzi – acquired Tuesday before the trading deadline – is rehabbing from back surgery that kept him out most of this season. He hopes to actively join the Wings sometime in March. It will take him time to get his rhythm and timing.

But when he does, you can bet all will be forgiven – especially when he makes his first hard check as a Red Wing. The past may haunt you. But the present can heal you.

“We talked about” Bertuzzi’s history “internally a little bit,” Ken Holland said Tuesday. “But I think in the end my feeling is … sure, he did something he regrets, and he probably would do things differently if he could. … He made a mistake. All of us make some mistakes. He happened to have made a bigger mistake than some of us.”

How much violence is too much?

Of course Holland isn’t looking for Bertuzzi to turn into Ber-fuzzy. He wants him to hover. He wants him to cast a shadow. “He’s gonna give us a physical presence, gonna give us size.…

“I think because of the skill of our team, our opponents think sometimes the best way to play us is to play really, really physical. With Todd Bertuzzi and (newly acquired) Kyle Calder… they’re gritty guys. I like to think that our guys won’t back off.”

So it is still a shadow that draws people to Bertuzzi. He insists he is about good, hard checks, not cheap shots. “I don’t think they brought me in to be dropping my gloves.”

He insists he will stand up for his teammates. That will be applauded. Yet he was standing up for a teammate when the worst incident of his life took place.

It is part of the curious nature of hockey, where too little violence is bad, too much is also bad, and no one is quite sure how much is just enough. Either way, the guy they once called Big Bad Bertuzzi is now on a team whose fans will have to switch from boos to cheers, just as Bertuzzi will have to switch his approach to Chelios.

“I think,” Bertuzzi said jokingly, “we’re rooming together.”

Let’s hope the rest of his stay is as lighthearted as that moment.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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