Todd Bertuzzi
Todd Bertuzzi is like an express train, rolling down the tracks with power and speed, able to get the attention of a lot of defenders around the National Hockey League.

Bertuzzi comes of age
By Larry Wigge | NHL.com
April 11, 2003



If you are built like a freight train, you don't drive around like you are a Volkswagen.

Think about that wild analogy for a minute. Then picture Vancouver Canucks right winger Todd Bertuzzi -- all 6-foot-3, 245 pounds of him.

To me, Bertuzzi is more like an express train, rolling down the tracks with power and speed, able to get the attention of a lot of defenders around the National Hockey League.

The buzzwords that most often are attached to offense and defense in hockey are time and space -- and both of those usually have to do with speed, as in trying to limit a talented player's time and space or creating time and space on offense.

Buzzwords aside, championships are not won without guts and grit. Now, if you add time and space with guts and grit, then you can probably picture Bertuzzi abusing NHL defensemen with his rare combination of size and speed.

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And with the new enforcement of rules in the NHL this season defenses are finding it near impossible to stop a freight train -- or express -- like Bertuzzi.

"You almost have to grab on to him when he comes out of the corner with the puck and when he comes through the neutral zone with speed, it's like water skiing behind him and he still powers through almost all would-be defenders," says Calgary Flames center Craig Conroy. "Picture Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher coming at you with that snarl on his face and that's how we feel trying to stop Bertuzzi."

Maybe a comparison to basketball's biggest name, Shaquille O'Neal, with his dominance on offense, however, is more apropos.

"It's almost like he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants," says linemate Markus Naslund. "All a lot of people see is Bert's size, but he's also got great hands. He could be a center if he needed to be, he's that creative."

But, if you go back a couple of years after the New York Islanders made Bertuzzi their first-round pick in 1993, the opinions were mixed.

Did I say mixed? Actually, members of the Islanders' management rarely had a kind thing to say about an underachieving Bertuzzi who went from a promising 18 goals as a rookie in 1995-96 to 10 and then seven in the next season and a half before General Manager Mike Milbury finally became so frustrated that he sent Bertuzzi and defenseman Bryan McCabe to Vancouver for forward Trevor Linden, who had been in coach Mike Keenan's doghouse all of the 1997-98 season.

"If I ever felt he was going to fulfill his potential, I'd be a fool to make the deal -- because Todd's potential is so vast," Milbury said at the time of the trade. "We tried everything short of bamboo shoots under the fingernails.

"He was hugged and kissed and stroked and educated. None of it seemed to work for Todd."

The lesson here is that sometimes a player doesn't want to hear how great he can be. You heard me. Some players -- to their credit -- want to look in the mirror and sort things out for themselves. Be their own person, not someone else's who fails to prosper with all of those expectations put on them.

How many players have been called the next Michael Jordan? The next Bobby Orr? The next Joe Montana? And then failed to come close to those fabled athletes?

Todd Bertuzzi
If you add time and space with guts and grit, then you can probably picture Todd Bertuzzi abusing NHL defensemen with his rare combination of size and speed.
On Long Island, the team was hoping and praying for a rebirth of Islanders' Hall of Fame power forward Clark Gillies. Nice compliment and perhaps the pep talk that Gillies was brought in to give to Bertuzzi might have worked with some players, particularly after Milbury sent Bertuzzi to the minors for a big chunk of his second NHL season.

"If you are built like a freight train, you don't drive around like you are a Volkswagen," Gillies remembers telling Bertuzzi. "Pick an opponent and go out and drill him through the boards."

Even Keenan, who has been known to pressure the best out of players such as Rick Tocchet and Mark Howe in Philadelphia, Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios in Chicago, Chris Pronger in St. Louis and Bill Guerin and Joe Thornton in Boston, discovered his mind games did not work on Bertuzzi in Vancouver.

"I tried to pump him up, challenge him," Keenan recalls, "and yet I told him it wasn't going to happen overnight. I think that's what he wanted to hear."

'It was almost all about Mark Messier with the Canucks at the time," says Linden, who is back with the Canucks after stays in Montreal and Washington before returning to Vancouver. "Look at how Bert and Markus Naslund took off when the Canucks gave them leadership responsibilities after Mess left.

"That's when I think that self-analysis began to pay off for Todd. That's when I think he began to push himself to be that monster power forward everyone always thought he could be."

Canucks coach Marc Crawford, when coaching the Cornwall junior team in the Ontario Hockey League, laughs at how many people have misjudged Bertuzzi over the years, including himself.

"I passed on him in the draft in juniors because I thought he had some maturity problems to overcome," Crawford said. "Maybe I was right then, but certainly not now. Todd is one of the most confident players I've ever coached."

And this story doesn't have one of those step-into-a-phone-booth-and-come-out-Superman endings.

"Maybe I was stubborn, maybe I didn't want people telling me who I should be," laughed Bertuzzi a couple of days after a particularly tough game against Keenan's Florida Panthers on Jan. 5 in which the powerful forward had two goals and an assist in a 3-2 victory over Florida. "Don't tell me I'm the next Clark Gillies. He's got four Stanley Cups, I have diddly-squat.

Todd Bertuzzi
"Don't tell me I'm the next Clark Gillies. He's got four Stanley Cups, I have diddly-squat. - Todd Bertuzzi
"Maybe I wasted a few years in the NHL, but I'd rather take my own time to do things right."

Bertuzzi made his skills work for him with a vengeance, scoring 25 goals in 1999-2000 and again the next season and then breaking out as an NHL star with 36 goals and 49 assists last season. This season, he had surpassed 40 goals already and has combined with Naslund and Brendan Morrison to become the most feared line in the game, all the while helping the Canucks rise to the NHL's upper echelon.

Look back at all of the most recent Stanley Cup champions -- yes, that honor that Bertuzzi still lacks in comparison with Gillies -- and you will see that all of those teams had at least one power forward who made opponents pay with his presence night after night. That physical presence is something the Canucks didn't have in other years -- and it's something that makes them a legitimate Stanley Cup threat.

"In hindsight, I think they were right about my physical side," Bertuzzi winks. "Us Bertuzzis have always been on the aggressive side in our approach to life and sports. But we also have to be our own men."

Actually, Bertuzzi says he was always a fan of Boston Bruins power forward Cam Neely, who struggled for a couple of seasons in Vancouver before he became a star in Boston.

Do you notice a parallel there? Slow in developing? Late bloomer?

"I probably put too much pressure on myself with the Islanders," Bertuzzi says. "I'd come home at night and watch tapes until my eyes were about to pop out. ... You could say it was analysis and paralysis, but ..."

Todd Bertuzzi's voice trailed off at the thought.

Then a little smile crossed his face and he said, "I think I knew all along that I could somehow make this work. It just took a little longer than I expected."

Believe me, the Canucks think Bertuzzi was worth the wait.

Larry Wigge has covered the NHL since 1969. His column appears each Tuesday on NHL.com.

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