February 13, 2011
The easiest response to Mario Lemieux's bombshell of a statement regarding the NHL's suspensions for that Pittsburgh Penguins/New York Islanders melee is to call him a hypocrite for cutting a check to a dirty player like Matt Cooke(notes). That rejoinder fails to understand the way the Penguins owner has approached these issues for 20 years, and fails to understand the subtle difference between a dirty player and a filthy team.
If there was one constant enemy during Mario's career on NHL ice, it was The Marginal Player; the guy who couldn't hang with the elite talent, so he clutched and grabbed and slashed and hooked and took liberties with guys for whom he should have been carrying sticks ... at least in Mario's mind.
When he was railing against the "garage league" the NHL had become back in the 1990s, he was railing against players that were employing that style as much as the style itself. From Lemieux in 1992:
"The advantage is to the marginal players now. They can hook and grab, and the good players can't do what they're supposed to do."
I'd wager Mario sees Matt Cooke as a "good player"; in the same way his former teammates Darius Kasparitus and Ulf Samuelsson and Rick Tocchet were "good players," despite their infamous transgressions. I'd wager he sees the Islanders' Trevor Gillies(notes), of the 47 NHL games since 2005-06 and now of the 9-game suspension, as a "marginal" player. I'd wager he thought the Islanders' Matt Martin(notes), of the 4-game suspension, was a NASCAR driver until Friday night's game.
Sure, he's defending one of his guys in leaving Cooke out of the scope of his complaints. But I imagine Mario would separate Cooke's dirty work -- dangerous, illegal hits during the course of play -- from that of the New York Islanders or another team, in which they're reckless and premeditated.
And he's right.
Cooke has no respect for his peers. The Islanders were like a bad Steven Segal movie on Friday night: Out for blood and justice because of previous unpunished transgressions, and waiting until it was 4-0 to draw it. Cooke lacks the comportment to make the right decision when seeing another player's numbers as he faces the glass. The Islanders seemed like they were waiting for the right moment to do what they did, and then did it a second time in the third period.
Again, not to defend Matt Cooke, because his acts are garbage -- but he's not a garbage player.
Where Mario's a bit hypocritical with Cooke: Players of his ilk, and like Kasparitus and Samuelsson, can be catalysts for the sort of riot we saw unfolding on Long Island last Friday. Their cause doesn't excuse the effect, but it's still a cause, and Mario's turning a blind eye to this.
Also, as Nick Cotsonika of Y! Sports pointed out in his piece on Mario, the Penguins lead the League in fights, penalty minutes and majors. It's difficult to hear someone preaching about how painful it was "to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that" while employing a few clowns of his own; in a League that, regrettably, Mario said he may need to "rethink whether I want to be a part of."
Please. That's Mario for you. He's always been a bit dramatic about these things, always willing to throw a stone or two inside his glass house. From Sports Illustrated in April 1997:
Over the summer Lemieux talked to Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, who persuaded him to return for one more year to try to win a third Stanley Cup. Baldwin and Lemieux were then invited to New York to talk to Brian Burke, the NHL director of operations, and commissioner Gary Bettman about Lemieux's concerns over league officiating.
"I talked about all the clutching and grabbing, how it was taking away from the great players in the league," Lemieux says. "It's to the point where it's not hockey anymore. It's like football on skates. The best teams win in basketball because the players can run up the court without carrying two guys on their backs. Not so in hockey. That's why there are so many teams with mediocre records. [Opposing players] grab you whether you have the puck or not. It's the worst it's been since I've been in the league. [Burke and Bettman] agreed. They always agree when you're there. It's very, very aggravating. You keep getting promises, and they aren't kept."
Mario somehow overcame this smothering, illegal obstruction to score 122 points and 50 goals in 1996-97, following 161 points and 69 goals in the previous season.
But no matter the optics on perceived "hypocrisy," he remained as outspoken then as he's outspoken now. Maybe if the NHL had fined the Islanders coach or management, this doesn't happen.
Or maybe Mario still pipes up because he just sees the same thing he's seen for 20 years: The Marginal among us doing things that are "unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport." And, of course, to the Penguins.