When Mario Lemieux speaks, we listen. When he blasts the NHL and insinuates he might want to leave it – even if out of anger, even if only for effect – our jaws drop.
But when he rips the actions of others and ignores the crimes of his own team, we shake our heads, too. He comes off as a hypocrite, and his message – even if legitimate – might get lost.
The owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins released a statement Sunday on his team’s Web site, calling the now infamous brawl-filled 9-3 loss to the New York Islanders a “travesty” and a “sideshow,” saying the league failed to send a strong enough message with the discipline it imposed. The last line was the kicker.
“If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league,” Lemieux said, “I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it.”
The statement was time-stamped at 2:10 p.m. It wasn’t minutes old before a flurry of tweets focused not on what Lemieux said, but what he didn’t.
I was one of the many who immediately thought of Matt Cooke(notes), the Penguin who concussed the Boston Bruins’ Marc Savard(notes) with a blindside hit last season, the Penguin who stuck out his leg on the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin(notes) last Sunday, the Penguin whose hit from behind on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Fedor Tyutin(notes) on Tuesday night resulted in a four-game suspension.
If Lemieux really wanted to make a statement, he could have said or done something about Cooke. Especially with Penguins star Sidney Crosby(notes) out with a concussion, he could have gone off on league issues – from the head shots to the head injuries to the line brawls to the goalie fights overshadowing the tight playoff races. He could have included Cooke in the discussion without even mentioning his name by simply saying even his own team hasn’t been blameless. But he didn’t.
Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect him to. Look at what happened when the Bruins’ Andrew Ference(notes) talked about teammate Daniel Paille(notes) after Paille’s Feb. 3 hit on the Dallas Stars’ Raymond Sawada(notes). Even though Ference called it a “bad hit” without calling Paille a bad guy – and it was a bad hit, resulting in a four-game suspension – Ference was excoriated by some for breaking the code. That was a player talking about a teammate; imagine an owner talking about one of his players.
“It’s definitely a different thing,” said Ference, who once played with and for Lemieux in Pittsburgh. “Honestly, what was all blown up about our team was a joke. It wasn’t a problem within our locker room at all. I could definitely see where management starts talking about players, it could be a little more uncomfortable.”
Ference’s frankness made his comments all the more powerful, though. Can you imagine what would happen if Lemieux, one of the greatest players in hockey history, who has a reputation for class and rarely speaks publicly anymore, played the superstar statesman and took a stand? Instead, he just looks like an angry owner.
“Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be,” Lemieux said in the statement. “But what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.
“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.
“We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kind of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action.”
Take Friday night in a vacuum, and Lemieux has a case. The game included 346 penalty minutes, third-most in the NHL since 1990. The Islanders’ Matt Martin(notes) sucker-punched the Penguins’ Max Talbot(notes). The Islanders’ Michael Haley, up from the minors, jumped on Talbot and then took on Penguins goalie Brent Johnson(notes), drawing Penguins enforcer Eric Godard(notes) off the bench. The Islanders’ Trevor Gillies(notes) elbowed the Penguins’ Eric Tangradi(notes) in the head, then mocked him as he headed off and Tangradi lay on the ice.
This was premeditated retaliation for an earlier battle with the Penguins.
It was a travesty. It was a sideshow. And the result? Gillies received a nine-game suspension, Martin a four-gamer. Haley got nothing. The Islanders were fined $100,000, but general manager Garth Snow and coach Jack Capuano got nothing, too. Bruins veteran Mark Recchi(notes), a former Penguin, said Lemieux was right, that “it wasn’t strong enough.”
The one who received the stiffest penalty was Godard, who received an automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench, plus empathy from a fellow enforcer.
“The rule’s the rule,” the Bruins’ Shawn Thornton(notes) said. “I’m not going against what the league did. But it is unfortunate that it’s set in stone and it’s automatic, because I mean, put in the same situation, seeing a teammate laying there, seeing another guy on the ground and then another guy going after your goalie, I mean, I wish I had the money to afford jumping off the bench in that situation.”
The problem is, you can’t take Friday night in a vacuum. Who led the league in fights entering Sunday’s games? The Penguins, with 61, according to hockeyfights.com. Who led the league in penalty minutes? The Penguins, with 1,101. Who led the league in majors? The Penguins, with 63. Who ranked second in game misconducts? The Penguins, with eight – two fewer than the first-place Islanders. Who was one of four teams with a match penalty? The Penguins.
Oh, and then there’s Cooke’s old act.
Lemieux needs to re-think whether that should be part of the league, too.