NHL linesman accused of ‘stealing’ Chicago Cup puck back in (updated)

UPDATE: Both Bob McKenzie of TSN and ESPN's Pierre LeBrun reported tonight that Miller has been put back into the rotation for Round 2. He'll be in Tampa this week for the Lighting-Capitals series and is expected to officiate.

Steve Miller is an 11-year NHL linesman with close to 50 playoff games to his credit, including work in the last two Stanley Cup Finals. He appeared twice in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs … and then was curiously removed from the officials' rotation for the second round.

The reason? Miller has been accused by several parties of having taken the game-winning puck from the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, which gave the Chicago Blackhawks their first championship since 1961.

From ESPN:

Miller was featured in an ESPN.com "Outside the Lines" story on April 21 that explored the whereabouts of the puck Patrick Kane shot to win last year's Cup in Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers. Since the story appeared, Miller has not worked an NHL game. Gary Meagher, the league's senior vice president for public relations, said Friday that the decision was made to temporarily remove Miller from the playoffs to avoid any potential distractions. Meagher said Miller is not suspended, and that the league stands behind him.

"There are lots of questions out there and to have any potential distraction while our playoffs are going on is not fair," Meagher said.

According to ESPN, Meagher said there is a possibility Miller could return later this postseason. Although how that return wouldn't be a distraction, given the press he's removal has been given, is baffling.

The NHL stands by Miller, as does the NHL Officials Association. The problem? There's almost irrefutable evidence that this linesman is being less-than-forthcoming with the whereabouts of a piece of hockey history.

After his overtime goal in Game 6 against the Flyers, Kane wasn't given the puck. No one associated with the Blackhawks was given it, actually. The Flyers claimed they didn't have it either … despite the presence of noted puck thief Chris Pronger, who swiped game pucks from the first two contests of the 2010 Finals in a bit of gamesmanship.

Who had it? Or, at least, who knew where it went?

In January, the Philadelphia Flyers blog Crossing Broad ran a provocative "who dunnit?" post that named Miller, who worked the sixth and final game of that series in Philadelphia, as its prime suspect.

Drehs picked up the investigation for ESPN, speaking with both teams, with eyewitness fans in the stands and, most importantly, with Miller himself about the following image:

From the outstanding piece from ESPN, Drehs speaks to Miller:

"If not you, then who has it?" I ask. "Who should I talk to?"

"I honestly don't have a clue," he tells me. "Honestly, I don't know where it would be. It's a mystery. Who knows? [Leighton] could have shot it away right away. And I may not have even seen it. It looks like I'm looking down there."

"Steve," I say, "It looks like you're looking right at it."

"From the picture it does, yeah. But I can honestly say that I didn't … when we came off the ice there was all the director of officials and all that kind of stuff, and they asked where the puck was. They wanted to know right there. The Hockey Hall of Fame wanted it."

The evidence presented through interviews and newly discovered video also point to Miller picking up the puck (click the image or here to view it):

So why is this such a serious matter for the NHL, to the point of pulling Miller from the playoffs, even temporarily?

First, there's no question that having one of their playoff officials center stage and on the record in that ESPN story is an embarrassment. The League doesn't make its officials available to the media after games, for the expressed reason that they don't want the officials to become the story. Whoops.

Second, this has become an FBI matter. (With the Bureau telling ESPN that "we are 100 percent certain the linesman picked up the puck.") Grant DePorter, CEO of Harry Caray's, offered a $50,000 reward for the puck. On the memorabilia market — or black market — it would carry a considerable price tag. So its whereabouts are a rather significant deal.

Did Miller "steal" the puck? The evidence is irrefutable that he handled it. But it's also completely believable that this guy accidently handed off hockey history to someone else in the postgame euphoria, and is unable to piece together what happened. So he's just going with the straight denial.

One thing's for certain: By removing him from the playoffs, the NHL made the accusations about Steve Miller into bigger headlines than the theories about his behavior ever did. He may or may not have stolen the puck; but the NHL has stolen a quality official from these playoffs, and in the process has certainly added validity to the accusations against him.

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