“It was a wrap-around,” recalled Bertuzzi, of the goal against Blaine Lacher.
The headline in the New York Times the next day read: ‘New Top Line Shows Promise for Islanders’. At the time Bertuzzi was a highly touted first-round pick who, at 20, was coming off a sensational 116-point season in the Ontario Hockey League with the Guelph Storm. His linemates that evening were Ziggy Palffy and Travis Green. That Bertuzzi scored in Boston, where his childhood idol, Phil Esposito, had scored so many times made the evening even more memorable.
“It was pretty cool to get it over with. That’s always the biggest pressure, getting that first goal. Even to this day it is still like that,” said Bertuzzi. “It’s a big accomplishment to get your first goal, your first point. A lot of us dream of being there and then when you are finally there, the atmosphere of an NHL game is pretty neat, pretty special.”
Bertuzzi is getting that same feeling again this season as a Calgary Flame. After two seasons of trades and injuries, the big man with the soft hands is having fun playing hockey again.
“This year is fun. The past handful of years weren’t as much fun. Injuries. They exhaust you. Half the time you don’t want to come down to the rink. You just aren’t feeling good.”
Having traveled from Vancouver to Florida to Detroit then to Anaheim, Bertuzzi has settled in as a Calgary Flame. He is getting lots of ice time. He is producing points. He is enjoying the limelight that comes with playing in a hockey-mad Canadian city. It is, like we said, fun again.
“This year, even after a lousy start, we kept it pretty even in the dressing room,” Bertuzzi explained. “It’s a good room here. I think that is the key. I think, for a lot of teams, when you get in a slump it becomes miserable and the attitude changes. It becomes a cycle and you keep going down, down, down.”
Bertuzzi then looks at the NHL from a philosophical point of view.
“Do you want to lose? No. Are you going to win 82 games? Absolutely not. Are you going to lose 15, 20, 30 games? More than likely. So, when you get in a slump, shake it off as quickly as you can and get right back on the horse,” said Bertuzzi.
Even keel enough for you? At 33 years old and in his 13th season, not much is going to faze Bertuzzi. He is a veteran who has seen slumps, seen plenty of different dressing rooms, and played on the international stage. He is also a student of the game. Always has been.
Just ask Mike Keenan, the Flames current head coach, who was the coach in Vancouver when the Canucks pried Bertuzzi from the Islanders in 1997. The pair clicked immediately and have continued to develop their relationship – Keenan traded for Bertuzzi when he was the general manager in Florida.
“He came as a young player and he was very open-minded about learning about the game, sharing ideas,” said Keenan of Bertuzzi’s arrival in Vancouver. “That type of relationship has just continued from that time.
“He understands the dynamics of the game. He is interested in finding out more about the dynamics of the game. He’s got an inquisitive mind. I think he enjoys that part of the development of the team. He wants to learn more about what is transpiring within the group as well as what is going happening on the ice.”
He understands the dynamics of the game. He has got an inquisitive mind. I think he enjoys that part of the development of the team - Mike Keenan
Perhaps that’s why Bertuzzi has fit seamlessly into the Flames dressing room. While there was public debate over the Flames signing of Bertuzzi last summer, players in the dressing room had no doubts that Bertuzzi would be a good addition to the team.
Defenceman Robyn Regehr joked back in July that when Bertuzzi scored three goals in the first three games that Flames fans would forget that he had been the enemy while he was in Vancouver and warm up to Big Bert in a Flames uniform. Voila, Bertuzzi had produced three goals in the first three games of the season and Flames fans were embracing No. 7.
Bertuzzi, by the way, is wearing No. 7 as a tribute to his boyhood idol, Esposito. He had worn 44 in Long Island, Vancouver, Florida and Detroit and last season wore No. 4 in Anaheim. Both those numbers were already in use when Bertuzzi arrived in Calgary so, a fresh start, with a new number, seemed appropriate.
Bertuzzi grew up in Sudbury in northern Ontario in a family where “hockey was a pretty big deal. My dad played semi-competitive.” He played minor hockey in Sudbury up to midget, when he was drafted into the OHL.
He remembers arriving in Guelph. “My dad drove me to Guelph, dropped me off at the track, gave me a hundred bucks and said ‘Good Luck’. We had to run the track. Six laps. I was leading the first lap and then I cam dead last after that. I was wearing cut off jeans and tank top, I think.”
“Hey, I’m from Sudbury,” laughed Bertuzzi.
It was a very successful junior career – the Islanders drafted him in the first round in 1993 in Quebec.
“Like any other kid you are nervous,” he said of draft day. “I was slotted to anywhere from fifth overall to the second round. I remember the interview process, meeting the general managers and the build-up and the lead-up to it and the uncertainty of where you are going to go. Then your name gets called and the rest is history.”
Bertuzzi’s history includes finishing third overall in the NHL scoring in 2001-02, behind then teammate Markus Naslund and Calgary’s Jarome Iginla. The following season he lit it up with career-highs of 46 goals and 51 assists.
He attributes at least part of that surge to prominence to Keenan.
“He is a guy I can confide in,” said Bertuzzi. “He is an easy guy to talk to. I think it is vice versa. I’m pretty easy to coach for him. I understand what he wants and what he needs. I think we have a good understanding. When you can get to a situation where you are comfortable with each other that’s the best way to be. You know what you are going to get and you can just go out and play hockey.”
And right now playing hockey is fun again for Todd Bertuzzi.