New York's Matt Martin throws a punch at Maxime Talbot during the recent Penguins-Islanders dust up. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
It was as predictable as the swallows flocking to Capistrano. No sooner had the words of rebuke for the NHL come out of Mario Lemieux’s mouth Sunday afternoon than legions of critics emerged to point out his hypocrisy.
Gotta love that hockey culture. One of the greatest, most physically gifted players in the history of the game sounds an alarm over the state of affairs in the NHL and how disciplinary matters are handled and instead of using it as a platform for meaningful debate on the issue, outsiders attack Lemieux for it.
Funny how almost nobody utters a peep every time Don Cherry mutters his inanities over publicly funded airwaves and the people’s wire service in Canada breathlessly reports it.
But that’s hockey, eh? It seems anytime anyone takes on the culture of violence that permeates the NHL, they get attacked. To wit, scroll down to the comments section and see how many writers suggest your trusty correspondent cover figure skating.
As soon as Lemieux criticized the NHL, critics were quick to point out the team he owns leads the NHL in both fighting majors (63) and penalty minutes (1,113) and employs the services of Matt Cooke, a dastardly player who seems to be Public Enemy No. 1 in every city in the NHL with the exception of Pittsburgh.
Lemieux is a hypocrite to be sure, but not because of all the fighting and the fact that his GM just re-signed Cooke to a three-year contract extension this past summer. No, Lemieux is a hypocrite because he chose to criticize the league only when it rendered a decision that affected his team. A lot of people would have a lot more respect for Lemieux if he had sounded the alarm sooner than this. All he would have had to do was watch the hockey highlights on any given night to see where the NHL is headed these days.
“It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that,” Lemieux said, referring to the Islanders 9-3 win Friday night that produced more than 300 penalty minutes, a four-game suspension to Matt Martin and a nine-game ban for Trevor Gillies of the Islanders, along with the Isles being fined $100,000. Eric Godard of the Penguins also received a 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join a fight.
A lot of people feel Lemieux’s pain. But the fact is the game turned into a sideshow long before the Penguins were attacked by the Islanders. Every time the dancing bears, some of whom are employed by Lemieux’s team, come out to take part in a fight that is clearly staged and pre-meditated, it represents an embarrassing sideshow for the NHL. When a goalie skates the length of the ice to challenge a guy 200 feet away for no apparent reason, it’s a sideshow. When players and teams start running around like lunatics once the score gets out of reach in an effort to send their opponents a message, that’s a sideshow.
“The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that these kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed,” Lemieux went on to say.
Where ya been, big fellow? Surely you’ve seen this movie before, haven’t you? After all, one of your players cold-cocked New York Rangers left winger Brandon Prust in the face two weeks ago and escaped any punishment because the league thought Prust embellished it. He might have done just that, but does that excuse a player from simply sucker punching another right in the face with his glove on?
“We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players,” Lemieux also said.
Hear, hear, Mario. Couldn’t agree with you more. But it would help if you came out with these bold proclamations when your team wasn’t the one directly affected by an NHL decision. You’re an owner now, a darn good one by all accounts, and you have a right to speak out about the way the league of which you’re a member conducts its affairs.
Personally, I’d have a lot more respect for Lemieux if he got so mad his veins bulged out of his neck and he slammed his fist down on the table at a board of governors meeting insisting the league do something meaningful about things such as supplementary discipline and head shots instead of making public proclamations when he’s not happy about a decision that involved his own team.
So have at it Mario. Sunday was a good start. But if you want meaningful change, keep ripping away. Do it often and in as many forums as possible. Perhaps one day somebody will listen to you.
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