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Mario Lemieux should back up tough talk with action

HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner and Hall of Fame member blasts the NHL's handling of brawls between his team and the New York Islanders but employs 'enforcer' Matt Cooke, one of the league's most vicious cheap-shot artists.

February 14, 2011|Helene Elliott
  • Co-owner Mario Lemieux watches as the Penguins warm up before the NHL Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Co-owner Mario Lemieux watches as the Penguins warm up before the NHL Winter… (Keith Srakocic / Associated…)

Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux tossed a live grenade into the arena of hockey conversation when he blasted the NHL's handling of the brawls Friday between the Penguins and the New York Islanders.

He made many good points in a statement released Sunday by the team.

It was a debacle. Officials handed out 15 fighting majors, 11 game misconducts and 346 penalty minutes. Islanders forward Trevor Gillies' vicious elbow to the head of Eric Tangradi and Gillies' taunting of his obviously woozy victim were deplorable. It was a time-machine glimpse of an outlaw league or the worst moments of the 1970s.

"Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. 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," Lemieux said. "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 kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action.

"If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it."

Gillies was suspended for nine games. Teammate Matt Martin was suspended four games for sucker-punching Maxime Talbot, and the Islanders were fined $100,000. Pittsburgh's only punishment was a 10-game suspension of Eric Godard for leaving the bench to defend goaltender Brent Johnson against Michael Haley. The punishment probably should have been a lot worse for both teams.

The problem is less what Lemieux said than what he left out.

Start with his continued employment of Matt Cooke, a headhunter who nearly ended the career of Boston's Marc Savard last season.

There's a difference between an enforcer who protects smaller skilled teammates and Cooke, whose vicious blow debilitated Savard and belatedly led the NHL to adopt a rule against blindside headshots. Enforcers generally fight each other. Cheap-shot artists don't care whose knee they mangle or whose brain they scramble. Cooke falls into that category.

Lemieux also didn't say whether he will retreat from the firestorm he created or continue discussing the issues.

He was always considered aloof during his Hall of Fame career, though he might have been shy about expressing himself in a language beside his native French and not arrogant. His stature gave him power, and he knew it. He called the NHL "a garage league" in 1992, referring to the destructive tactics fringe players employed to bring skill players down to their level, and eventually the obstruction and holding that infuriated him and other superstars were legislated out of the game.

Here's a way for Lemieux to make something positive result from this.

NBC and Versus — now called the NBC Sports Group — will air nine hours of coverage Sunday for "Hockey Day in America" and the Heritage Classic outdoor game between the Montreal Canadiens and Flames at Calgary's McMahon Stadium. Lemieux should ask to appear sometime during those telecasts to discuss his thoughts and his threat to "re-think" his involvement with the NHL.

If he's serious, that would be a serious blow to a league already facing ownership problems in many cities.

Lemieux could also explain why, if he's so concerned for the safety of the game, he still employs Cooke.

It's entirely in his interest to say what the league should have done. He can offer to chair a committee to analyze these incidents and set standards for punishment.

NBC and Versus could create a panel discussion by inviting former players — scorers and enforcers — and ask them whether the recent flurry of fights is a product of close playoff races or a frightening and harder-to-fix lack of respect as fringe players desperately try to keep their jobs.

If Lemieux declines and leaves the next step to someone else, he forfeits his right to be taken seriously on this issue again.

Slap shots

The Kings had at least four scouts at the Florida-San Jose game Sunday, and not to watch the Sharks. It's likely they targeted center Stephen Weiss (15 goals, 37 points) and left wing David Booth (15 goals, 28 points). Forwards Marty Reasoner, Cory Stillman, Radek Dvorak and Chris Higgins, impending unrestricted free agents, might be available as rentals.

The Tennessean newspaper's website had the hockey headline of the season after Nashville traded for Ottawa center Mike Fisher: "Predators acquire Carrie Underwood's husband." Later editions inserted his name. The Tennessean knows its audience and, in Music City, Underwood's name has the bigger impact. Fisher, incidentally, made a classy move by buying a full-page advertisement in an Ottawa newspaper thanking fans and management for their support.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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