Like all truly epic in-game sins, Steve Bernier’s boarding major in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals had an immediate, devastating result. While the sinner sat in the visitors’ dressing room listening to the Kings score, and score, and score on the ensuing 5-minute power play, the internet suddenly became a Bernier-rich place. Bernier’s Wikipedia page was “updated” more than once by people itching to express their disdain for the man, his athletic ability, his judgement and his parentage. The reaction on Twitter was even faster and more brutal as many Devils fans heaped hate on Bernier while fans of 29 other teams fans cracked jokes with glee. (The refs took their share of abuse, too, but that’s hardly newsworthy, is it?)
Although Bernier did not lose the series for the Devils, his first-period penalty established conditions under which Devils had little to no chance of winning. While the Kings skated the Cup, Bernier’s teammates joined Bernier in the visitors’ room and calmly, unflinchingly defended him to reporters. The message was that he wasn’t forgiven, because there was nothing to forgive. He made a play that ended badly, the refs made the call they made, and that’s that.
And that’s basically how I saw it, too. Bernier’s in-game sin really only qualified as such because the resultant penalty kill was so utterly unsuccessful. He tried to finish a check when he should have eased up, his victim ended up bleeding (hurt, it should be noted, but not injured – he ended up with more than 17 minutes of ice time in the game) and his team landed in an impossibly deep hole because of it. Big game, bad result.
Bernier makes a convenient, if unconvincing, villain, because although he committed the game-altering infraction, he did so through neither malice nor incompetence. Perhaps the most famous in-game sinner of all time, Bill Buckner, got that way by suffering a moment of athletic incompetence at the worst possible moment. He failed to make a play that every Little Leaguer in America has drilled a million times. There but for a few more viewings of a Tom Emanski video went Buckner from World Series champion (or at least Game 7 participant) to eternal scapegoat. His name lives on, like Shakespeare or Einstein, as the defining example of that which he did better than anyone else. He was first hated and then, after enough time had passed, pitied. Now he’s a punchline, a role he long ago accepted. Hell, he makes a living off it. Bernier is no Buckner.
One of the worst in-game sins in hockey history took place during an ordinary, regular-season game and was not the result of incompetence; on the contrary, it was executed exactly as the sinner drew it up, which is what makes it so bad. Todd Bertuzzi planned to injure Steve Moore, stepped on the ice intending to injure Steve Moore and, as soon as the opportunity arose, injured Steve Moore. It was an act of pure malice, having nothing to do with the game being played at the time and everything to do with a misplaced grudge. Moore suffered career-ending and life-altering injuries while Bertuzzi received a suspension (which was not long enough), a plea bargain on criminal charges (which was not harsh enough) and a pending civil suit (which I very much hope he loses, and badly). This wasn’t the worst injury an athlete has ever suffered on the field of play, nor the worst inflicted by a fellow athlete, but Bertuzzi’s attack derives its unusual heinousness from the clear premeditation on the part of player, coach and organization. There was no split-second decision here, and no attempt to make any kind of hockey play. Bernier is no Bertuzzi.
Bertuzzi was an angry person who committed a deplorable act. Buckner was a good athlete who committed a sad-sack act. Bernier was a normal hockey player who committed a normal hockey act that landed on the wrong side of the rule book. There’s no reason, in his case, to hate the player, even if his sin leads us to hate Game 6.