Inevitably, it came. It always does. And Bertuzzi had his answer ready. “Not going there,” Bertuzzi said. “Time to move on.”
More than 2 1/2 years have passed since the March 2004 game from which Bertuzzi seems unable to escape. As a member of the Vancouver Canucks, Bertuzzi punched Colorado’s Steve Moore in the side of the head and drove him face-first into the ice, breaking three vertebrae in Moore’s neck.
Bertuzzi was suspended for the remainder of that season, returning after the lockout ended for the 2005-06 campaign and had a 71-point season with the Canucks. He’s out of Vancouver now, traded to the Panthers this past off-season in what brought a welcome change of scenery.
He says he’s no longer talking about that, and wants the focus solely to be on his future with a young, promising Florida club – which opens the season Friday at home against the Boston Bruins.
“When it comes down to it, as you get older, you want to win championships and be on winning teams,” Bertuzzi said. “I think that’s what everyone’s focus has to be. It’s not about me.”
Still, he may be the focus of the Panthers’ season – history not withstanding.
He’s a high-scoring winger brought in to provide leadership and scoring, and might wind up being the biggest key to Florida’s hopes of ending a lengthy post-season drought. So Bertuzzi has spent the past few weeks learning about his new teammates, many of whom he didn’t know before the trade.
“His body’s ready. It’s just maybe his timing,” said Panthers coach and general manager Jacques Martin. “When you come to a new organization, sometimes there’s a period of adjustment to a new system, new teammates and so on. But he still brings a dimension.”
Entering his 11th season, Bertuzzi never has been close to hoisting the Stanley Cup. He’s appeared in the post-season only three times, all with the Canucks, never getting past the conference semifinal round.
The Panthers are not exactly a perennial playoff contender. Since making a storybook run to the Stanley Cup final in 1996, where they were swept by Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche, Florida has won exactly one playoff game – and it hasn’t reached the post-season since 2000.
The Panthers finished with 85 points last season, seven points shy of the East’s final playoff spot.
Still, Bertuzzi likes what he sees.
“Good team. Fast team,” Bertuzzi said. “I think with the additions we’ve made here, it’s only going to make us stronger. I think we’re building a pretty good nucleus here and hopefully we can jell together early and start off right.”
There were many promising signs for Florida last season, including a stretch of 11 wins in 13 games late in the year, when the Panthers – who spent much of the season languishing well outside the playoff picture – actually made a late push toward getting into the post-season.
“This team has changed a lot,” said Panthers center Olli Jokinen, who had career highs of 38 goals and 89 assists last season and was rewarded with a four-year, US$21-million contract. “This year, I feel comfortable. I think we’ve got all the tools to be a playoff team.”
Bertuzzi came to Florida in the trade that sent all-star goaltender Roberto Luongo to the Canucks. In Luongo’s place will be Alex Auld, who won 33 games last season for Vancouver, and 41-year-old Ed Belfour – who was in net for Dallas’ run to the 1999 Stanley Cup and went 22-22 with Toronto last season.
“We like our hockey club,” Martin said. “We like a lot of the dimensions we’ve added to our team. … For sure, progress always takes a bit of time. But I like what our new people are bringing.”
The trade involving Bertuzzi and Luongo was engineered by former Panthers GM Mike Keenan, who left the organization in early September just days before training camp.
It was the second time Keenan traded for Bertuzzi; when he was with the Canucks, he acquired the six-foot-three, 245-pounder from the New York Islanders, and both men said they were looking forward to working together again. But Keenan is gone now, leaving Martin as the only coach in the league this season who’s also serving as a GM.
“Mike and I have known each other a long time and it’s unfortunate,” Bertuzzi said. “But, again, you’ve got to move on.”