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