NHL deals with own referee controversy
A whistleblowerBy Scott Conroy
Sunday, January 17, 2010 -
As someone who can’t figure out why any rational person would find the NBA a more appealing product than the NHL on a nightly basis, I’ve gotten a good laugh as the former has grappled with such public relations disasters as the Tim Donaghy gambling scandal to the “High Noon” hijinks down in Washington with Gilbert Arenas.
But the NHL had its own little integrity-of-the-game issue last week and, though it’s hardly as rancid as the Donaghy mess, it doesn’t smell quite right.
After a Nashville win in Vancouver on Monday, Canucks forward Alex Burrows accused referee Stephane Auger of telling him prior to the game that he planned to get a little payback for Burrows’ supposed embellishment of an injury after a hit in a game between the same two teams on Dec. 8. That hit prompted Auger to slap Predator forward Jerred Smithson with a five-minute major and game misconduct, which was subsequently rescinded by the league when video suggested Burrows was faking it.
There is video evidence of a pregame conversation between Burrows and Auger on Monday night, as well as suspicious third-period diving and interference calls against Burrows, the latter of which roundly has been described as questionable at best. Burrows was in the penalty box when Nashville scored the game-winning goal.
After the game, Burrows aired his version of the story to the media scrum.
“It was personal,” he said. “It started in the warmup before the anthem. The ref came over to me and said I made him look bad on the Smithson hit. He said he was going to get me back tonight and he did his job in the third period.”
For that and other comments, the league tagged Burrows with a $2,500 fine. Auger got no public rebuke. And who knows? Maybe that was the most just outcome possible, though the fine would seem to suggest that the league believes Burrows (who did serve a suspension while in the ECHL for abuse of an official, by the way), is a liar with a vivid imagination.
Now, to digress for a minute, a little give between a player and ref is nothing new. Former referee and NHL player Paul Stewart, now the director of officiating for the ECAC collegiate league, has a lengthy list of NHL All-Stars, from Steve Yzerman to Dennis Savard to Craig Janney, with whom he had run-ins. And he made his share of threats.
“I refereed at least 100 games with Claude Lemieux. That guy should have been the Otis Elevator Man of the Year. Why? He was up, he was down, he was up, he was down,” Stewart said. “Half the time he was down; he’d feel his teeth, try to put on an act for the home crowd. He tried to suck us in. You’d go by him, tell him to get up, call him a phony, whatever. One night I went over to (former Montreal coach Pat) Burns and told him, ‘I’ve had enough of this guy. You either start coaching him or I’m going to ditch him.’ ”
Some might not approve of that approach but, Stewart surmised, a good hockey man would recognize he was giving the team a break by giving a warning, however pointed it may have been.
“You’ve got to temper it with judgment,” Stewart said.
Auger, however, is not accused of making a threat but a promise, and that alleged vow affected the game’s outcome. In what boiled down to a he-said, he-said standoff, league disciplinarian Colin Campbell sided with Auger, at least publicly.
“The National Hockey League will not tolerate the personal nature of the comments Mr. Burrows directed at Referee Auger or the fact that he brought into question the integrity of the official and the game,” Campbell said in a statement released Wednesday.
“We have determined that Mr. Burrows’ account of Referee Auger’s comments to him before the game, and specifically Burrows’ suggestion that these comments indicated bias against the player or the Vancouver team, cannot be substantiated. While Referee Auger engaged the player in a brief conversation prior to the opening faceoff, I firmly believe that nothing inappropriate was said and that Referee Auger’s intentions were beyond reproach.”
Appearing on the NHL Network on Thursday, Campbell, the NHL’s vice president of hockey operations, said that Auger told him he never broached the specific subject of payback, yet, given that the smoking gun conversation was in French, Campbell said there very well could have been a misunderstanding between the ref and Burrows.
A plausible explanation? Maybe. A convenient one? Absolutely.
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