It's been three days since the Debacle on Long Island, Friday Night Raw, or whatever you want call that embarrassing display by the New York Islanders last Friday night (listen to our podcast on the events in question, here). The Isles sent their goons to ambush the Penguins, the NHL meted out its punishment late on Saturday night, and Mario Lemieux woke up on Sunday with fire in his eyes, and no Ronnie Francis to hold him back.
Lemieux lambasted the league for failing to come down harder on the Islanders for turning Friday's game into a no holds-barred steel cage match. Now the blogosphere knives are out, and they are aimed not at the thugs in Islander uniforms, but squarely at Lemieux. ESPN's Scott Burnside mocks Lemieux for being too busy "working on his short game" to comment on Matt Cooke's trangressions and labels Cooke's hit on Marc Savard "a thousand times worse" than the one that recently concussed Sidney Crosby. Burnside also blasts Lemieux for taking a stand against premeditated violence even though the Penguins are among the league leaders in fighting majors. In sum, Burnside argues, Lemieux's statement was over-the-top, hypocritical, and entirely self-serving. And, Puck Daddy adds, infantile. We here at GTOG are big fans of Scott Burnside. As far as we're concerned, ESPN should release him from his grandmother's living room and allow him to broadcast from a more suitable location.
But Burnside is dead wrong here, and we'd be remiss if we didn't call him out for what sounds like a measure of bitterness, maybe over the fact that Lemieux is intensely private and doesn't give hockey writers the time of day. Here's why he's wrong:
1) Yes, Lemieux employs Matt Cooke. And yes, Matt Cooke has thrown his share of illegal checks. Cooke plays on the edge, and about once a year throws a check that is actually suspension-worthy. But those are plays made during the normal course of a game, and to suggest that Matt Cooke is some kind of outlier is entirely disingenuous. There is a boarding penalty about once every three games in the NHL. Players on other teams commit them all the time, and usually they're a result of one player trying to separate another from the puck, with no intent to injure. One thing Matt Cooke has never done, and this is what distinguishes the events on Long Island, is turn a hockey game into a street fight. I think Burnside is fully capable of making that distinction; he just doesn't want to. Just like he doesn't want to acknowledge that Victor Hedman's hit on Crosby - though less dramatic - was every bit as bad as Cooke's hit on Marc Savard, if not worse. Marc Savard had just released the puck and his head was down. We saw even worse hits from other players last season, notably Mike Richards, and there was much debate about an ambiguity in the rules that actually suggested that kind of hit was legal. In the case of Crosby and Hedman, there is no debate. Crosby didn't have the puck. Hedman hit him squarely from behind, bouncing Crosby's face off the glass. Now the best player in the league may be gone for the season, Hedman wasn't punished, and Lemieux didn't say a word about it.
2) Leading the league in fighting majors does not make Mario a hypocrite. I'm struggling over whether the argument that Lemieux is a hypocrite because the Penguins take penalties is even worth a response, so I'll keep it brief. Fighting is legal. Two willing combatants sometimes drop the gloves. They each get 5 minutes in the penalty box. The game continues. Assaulting somebody who hasn't agreed to fight and, in fact, isn't even aware he's about to be assaulted, is a different story.
3) This isn't Mario Lemieux's first rodeo. He's been very outspoken for decades about bringing the NHL out of the dark ages. Fans want to see skilled players play, and they do not want to see hockey continually portrayed to the general public - often accurately - as a barbaric sport. Lemieux has always understood this, and the league has always been agonizingly slow in responding to his concerns. His statement on Sunday wasn't just about the Islander game; it was about the Steckel and Hedman hits on Crosby, it was about Scott Hartnell biting Kris Letang, and it was probably about that game when Kerry Fraser wouldn't call a penalty when Mario was getting mugged up and down the ice. If this were the NBA, Matt Martin and Trevor Gillies would be suspended for the rest of the season. No questions asked. In the NHL, the league issues relatively mild suspensions in the middle of the night and hopes it all goes away. Well, Mario Lemieux wasn't going to let that happen. Was he a bit overly dramatic? Perhaps, but he knows you have to throw your gloves pretty high in the air to draw a high sticking penalty. Is he correct that the NHL still is, in too many respects, a "garage league?" Definitely. And if respected hockey people like Scott Burnside don't like it, if they think Lemieux is being childish by threatening to disassociate himself from a league that has been very good but also consistently frustrating to him, believe me, he doesn't care.