Detroit Red Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi should get vaccinated. Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

On the Detroit Red Wings, there is no one quite like Tyler Bertuzzi.

His net presence, his size and speed, his vision on the ice, his deft passing and that raw magic all natural scorers have — no one else on the team possesses them in equal quantities.

But in the NHL, there is definitely no one like Bertuzzi.

He remains the league’s lone holdout when it comes to taking the COVID-19 vaccine.

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It has cost him games in Canada, paychecks and time in quarantine. It also is costing those who can least afford to pay the high price of his absence: His team, which is 12-6-3 when he’s in the lineup and 2-6 when he’s not.

That swing is even more dramatic for a team finally on the rise in its rebuild; a team which, to everyone’s surprise, finds itself in the thick of the playoff hunt.

Before Tuesday’s game against the New York Islanders at Little Caesars Arena —when Bertuzzi returned to the lineup for the first time since Nov. 30, after missing five games in quarantine under the NHL’s COVID protocol — I asked coach Jeff Blashill what the Wings missed about Bertuzzi.

“He’s obviously a really good player,” Blashill said. “You miss a guy who’s been on our top line. But you also miss kind of an engine. Both kind of on the ice, in terms of how hard he plays and the passion with which he plays.

“I would also say, off the ice he just brings a lot of color to our locker room, a lot of excitement. He’s an energetic person, and fun to be around. So those are things that he certainly brings to the lineup.”

It’s no coincidence Bertuzzi returned on a night when the Wings ground out a 2-1 win, ending a three-game losing streak and reclaiming the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

I went to watch Bertuzzi, to see if he would still be himself after testing positive Dec. 1 and trying to stay active while dealing with symptoms. I watched Bertuzzi for every second of his 17 shifts. His presence was obvious. You could feel the energy he brought pulsating off the boards and the glass and through the arena.

Bertuzzi, who plays on the top line with Dylan Larkin and Lucas Raymond, is dangerous any time he takes the ice. Passion, intensity and grit are evident in his game. But there’s something else that stands out: his selflessness from start to finish.

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In the first period, as the Wings entered the zone, Bertuzzi streaked in from the left wing with the puck. He could have taken a shot. Instead he made a beautiful cross-ice pass; Moritz Seider couldn’t handle it, but it would have resulted in an excellent shot opportunity from inside the right circle with the goalie moving across his crease.

In the third period, with four minutes left and the Wings trying to stave off the Islanders’ onslaught, New York defenseman Robin Salo wound up from the blue line. Bertuzzi surged forward and laid down to block the shot, then got up slowly and skated to the bench.

Bertuzzi had the fourth-most time on the ice among forwards. He took five shots, blocked one shot and made one hit. He was one of only three forwards in the game with a block and a hit. There were no points for Bertuzzi, but you can bet the Islanders felt him out there. So did the Wings.

“Well, I think when you return one of your better players, it gives your team more confidence,” Blashill said afterward. “And we probably needed some of that coming out of a three-game losing streak, and a couple tough games on the road, especially.

“So I think it just gives you a little juice, it gives you a little confidence knowing that he’s back. And I thought Tyler looked pretty good for the layoff that he’s had. He said that he felt pretty good, his legs felt good. So from that aspect I thought it was a positive, certainly a positive to have him back. We’re excited to have him.

This is what I don’t understand about Bertuzzi’s decision. How can he be so thoroughly selfless and committed to his team on the ice, and then so careless and selfish off the ice?

Look, I don’t want to turn this in a political rant. I don’t care about Bertuzzi’s politics any more than he cares about mine. I try to be understanding and respectful of everyone’s beliefs and backgrounds. But Bertuzzi hasn’t given any kind of real explanation for his decision other than calling it “just personal choice, freedom of choice and a life choice.

When he returned to practice this week and was asked if he reconsidered getting the vaccine, he said, “Natural immunity now.”

I don’t want to turn this into a science lecture, either, but Johns Hopkins Medicine, the Mayo Clinic Health System and other highly respected medical organizations have disputed the effectiveness of natural immunity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers this serious warning about natural immunity: “Getting COVID-19 may offer some natural protection, known as immunity. Current evidence suggests that reinfection with the virus that causes COVID-19 is uncommon in the 90 days after initial infection. However, experts don’t know for sure how long this protection lasts, and the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 far outweighs any benefits of natural immunity.”

I’m sure Joe Rogan and Aaron Rodgers have fascinating theories and arguments to counter these scientific facts. Maybe Bertuzzi even has his own that he isn’t willing to share.

The one answer he did provide, albeit with a lame tautology, was when a reporter asked him how much harder it would be when he has to miss the Wings’ remaining six games in Canada in a potentially tight playoff race.

“Uh, yeah, obviously it sucks missing games,” he said. “But it is what it is.”

I hope Bertuzzi has a better answer than that for his teammates.

Nothing about Bertuzzi’s decision makes much sense to me, or to many of the fans who have regularly criticized him. It’s hard to reconcile the sacrifices he makes on the ice for his teammates with the one he’s not willing to make for them off the ice.

Getting the vaccine would erase any doubt about his total commitment to the Red Wings. But not getting it — and being the only NHL player who refuses to do so — also says something about how far his commitment goes.

Bertuzzi is an elite and exciting player any team would be happy to have on its top line. It’s a pleasure to watch him play. It would be a shame — but completely understandable — if the Red Wings had to consider their own commitment to him as he approaches free agency after next season.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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