Lemieux justified in criticism of NHL
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It's easy to criticize Penguins owner Mario Lemieux for speaking out Sunday against the gratuitous violence that often makes the NHL a second-rate sports league or, as he once famously called it, "a garage league."
A lot of people who follow hockey in North America have done just that.
Let me count the ways:
• Lemieux seldom shows enough interest to comment on NHL matters. So why now? Could it be because his star player, Sidney Crosby, is out with a concussion from one or both cheap shots in early January and might not play again this season?
• Lemieux is hypocritical. He employs winger Matt Cooke, who, though he has some hockey skills, might be the dirtiest player in the league. Former NHL great Jeremy Roenick predicted last week that Cooke will "cripple" another player if he doesn't change his ways.
• Lemieux was ridiculous when he said he might have to "re-think" his ownership in the Penguins if the NHL doesn't do a better job of dealing with the unnecessary violence that makes the game "a travesty" and "a sideshow." The way the Penguins are printing money at Consol Energy Center, it's hard to imagine Lemieux selling his interest in the team anytime soon.
All are fair criticisms, that last one especially.
I just hope they don't blind people to the fact that Lemieux's criticism of the NHL was spot-on.
Lemieux was reacting to the 346 penalty minutes, including 14 fighting majors and 21 misconducts, in the Penguins' 9-3 loss Friday to the New York Islanders on Long Island. He clearly wasn't happy with the discipline handed down to the Islanders by the NHL. He didn't complain when the Washington Capitals' David Steckel and the Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman weren't punished after questionable hits on Crosby in games Jan. 1 and Jan. 5. But the Friday night fiasco was too much for him. More than one longtime Penguins staffer described him as "being angrier than we've ever seen him."
The Penguins believe the Islanders went into the game targeting forward Max Talbot and goaltender Brent Johnson. Talbot had given the Islanders' Blake Comeau a concussion with a borderline cheap hit when the teams played Feb. 2 in Pittsburgh. That was the same night that Johnson dropped the Islanders' Rick DiPietro with one punch in a rare goaltenders fight.
Lemieux knows there's a code in hockey to take care of such matters. It worked perfectly last season after Cooke concussed Boston Bruins star Marc Savard with a blind-side check at Mellon Arena. When the teams played in Boston 11 days later, Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton challenged Cooke to a fight early in the game. Cooke obliged him and took a fair beating. That was the end of it.
But the Islanders broke the code, as far as the Penguins are concerned. They called up minor league tough guy Micheal Haley before the game, and Haley ended up in three fights against Penguins center Craig Adams, Talbot and Johnson. Forward Matt Martin skated up to Talbot from behind and sucker-punched him. Forward Trevor Gillies left his skates to elbow Penguins forward Eric Tangradi in the head, continued to wail at Tangradi after he went to the ice, then taunted him when it was clear that Tangradi was hurt.
"It was a black mark on our game," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said Monday of the mayhem. "It was awful.
"No one wants to wake up the next morning and see that stuff on TV. No one wants it to be a part of our game."
Lemieux believes the NHL should have been tougher with its penalties. He understood that Penguins enforcer Eric Godard had to be suspended for 10 games because he left the bench to rush to Johnson's defense when Haley attacked him. But it troubled him that Gillies got a lesser suspension -- nine games -- for the incident with Tangradi. It infuriated him that Martin was given four games for his assault on Talbot, which brought back sad memories of a similar blind-side punch thrown by Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi at Colorado's Steve Moore in 2004 which left Moore with a broken neck after he fell to the ice. Talbot was luckier than Moore because he saw Martin coming at the last second.
"The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed," Lemieux said in a statement that the Penguins released.
"We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players."
It especially had to be galling to Lemieux that Martin received the same punishment that Cooke did after Cooke's check from behind on the Columbus Blue Jackets' Fedor Tyutin a week ago. The Penguins are convinced Martin's actions were premeditated compared to the Cooke hit, which was a heat-of-the-moment hockey play, dirty as it might have been.
"He never gave [Talbot] a chance to defend himself," Shero said. "C'mon, you've got to give the man a chance! [Talbot] fought three times in that game. He certainly wasn't going to be afraid to stand up for himself."
It's nice to think Lemieux won't let this issue die with his statement. It's time he gets more involved with what he called "the game I love" to make it better and to find ways for the NHL to eliminate the disgraceful shenanigans of Friday night and those in other games such as the three fights in the first four seconds Feb. 3 of the Dallas-Boston game.
"Whenever an icon like Mario or Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr speaks, I think hockey owes it to them to listen," Shero said.
I couldn't agree more.
Lemieux's is a powerful voice in hockey. But he needs to use it more for it to be fully heard and effective.
Here's hoping the Lemieux statement was just a start.
First Published February 15, 2011 12:00 am