January 13, 2010
"Auger? Solid, not spectacular ref. Not one of the NHL's best, but solid. To be honest, most nights I couldn't tell you who the referees are any more. It's just not a big factor to me." - Damien Cox, Toronto Star, Jan. 13, 2010
So referee Stephane Auger is "solid" despite the fact that it may not have been Auger that Damien was watching through apathetic eyes. OK then.
Based on the reactions, something may have been lost in translation during our post about Alex Burrows(notes) of the Vancouver Canucks receiving a $2,500 fine for accusing Auger of premeditated bias, followed by the NHL telling us that the matter is "closed" as far as additional punishment for Auger from the League.
Initially, Burrows using a public forum to expose this alleged bias from Auger seemed like proper whistle-blowing. But in hindsight, and in assessing the fallout, it was the wrong tactic: What was a dispute between a player and an official -- not exactly an oddity, as Ed Willes wrote in a terrific piece for the Vancouver Province -- exploded into a scandal the following morning.
It's impossible, post-Tim Donaghy, to read comments like those from Burrows and not think there's a more systemic problem among NHL officials. The League investigation followed the public outcry; in hindsight, it should have been the other way around, but Burrows' passion got the better of him and the story ended up as front page news on Yahoo! Sports and ESPN.com.
But here's where we've seen some confusion: Supporting the NHL's financial penalty to Burrows is not supporting Stephane Auger or dismissing Burrows' accusations. Which brings us back to Cox.
Auger is anything but "solid." Which is why we were a little stunned when the NHL deemed the matter "closed," and why we hope the NHL provides further clarification before Auger hits the ice again tonight for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Calgary Flames, according to Darren Dreger.
(UPDATE: Colin Campbell is meeting with Auger and his crew, per Sportsnet, but any punishment is expected to stay on the down-low.)
The referee's sordid work history in the NHL came to light rather quickly when the scandal broke, going back to the Shane Doan(notes) cultural "slur" incident.
Dreger of TSN wrote that the "NHL has great respect for its on-ice officials and considers Auger one of its best." We haven't spoken to anyone on a League level regarding his reputation, but there is a rather easy way to measure that respect: How many playoff games has Auger officiated since breaking into the League in 1999-2000?
As Puck Buddy Thomas P. mentioned in the comments last night: Auger's been in 10 playoff games, according to the NHL Officials' Web site.
Kelly Sutherland, an NHL official since 2000? He's appeared in 38.
Wes McCauley, an NHL official since 2007? He's appeared in 19.
Sorry, but if an NHL referee has appeared in as many postseason games (10) as the Phoenix Coyotes have since 2000, we're not sure how the referee can be considered "one of its best."
But hey: Stay Classy, Stephane Auger.
The combination of Auger's less-than-inspiring career and the stinging black eye Burrows gave the NHL with his public comments demand more context from the NHL. Because we doubt Tony Gallagher of the Province is the only one with this theme running through his skull:
Is there money to be made in hockey by betting on the bias of officials, either personal or collective, against a particular player or players? Is there now going to be a collective witch hunt against Burrows by all the officials now that he's spoken out and exposed this petty underside of the officiating business?
And will the NHL sit by and watch it happen the way the NBA did, and apparently continues to do, by contending Donaghy is a rogue referee and has no credibility?
Donaghy went so far as to say that the NBA was "an entertainment and it's a show" and not "a true athletic competition." Could this be happening in the NHL?
The league, which ordinarily tolerates dissent as liberally as China, can scarcely sweep this mess under the rug in commissioner Gary Bettman's Manhattan office. The credibility of the league is at stake, which is why Bettman reportedly is keenly involved in the investigation.
The NHL's media relations department would confirm Tuesday only that Campbell is reviewing the incident. "There is no timeline on the review, and there will be no updates," a league spokesman said.
Auger, a 39-year-old from Montreal, has been an NHL referee for 10 years and worked a full schedule of 73 games last season.
"You don't even have to be a ref to figure it out," an unnamed referee told Sportsnet. "Don't leave the gun at the scene with your fingerprints all over it."
You mean like this one?
Dreger believes we'll not see any publicly disclosed punishment for Auger because "the evidence isn't there" in this he said/he said matter:
At worst, Terry Gregson, the NHL's director of officiating, will remind Auger that approaching a player before the game - as Auger clearly did on Monday night prior to the Canucks' match-up with the Nashville Predators - is never a good idea.
Look, veteran hockey insiders like Bob McKenzie had given this matter valuable context in the last 24 hours: Stephane Auger is no more hockey's answer to Tim Donaghy than Alex Burrows is Jeffrey Wigand. These feuds happen in hockey between players and officials, but the grievances are never aired this publicly. The initial blast of controversy was imposing for the NHL; as time passed, it seems like a much more personal dispute.
That doesn't excuse the NHL from explaining what, exactly, transpired between Auger and Burrows. Auger hasn't earned that wall of silence, and his performance in the Canucks game was an embarrassment.
Someone compared this incident to the "missing replay" affair for the Philadelphia Flyers, and the comparison is a fair one: In both cases, the integrity of the game was maligned and the paying customers have every right to ask for the more information to restore it, even after the matter's been "closed."