Lemieux criticizes NHL's response to dirty hits
NEW YORK -- Pittsburgh Penguins majority co-owner Mario Lemieux blasted the National Hockey League on Sunday for what he considered a failure to protect players from intentionally malicious hits and suggested he might get out of the game if officials do not change their approach.
Sources said Lemieux privately had been fuming since the Penguins' game with the New York Islanders on Friday, which ended with the third-most penalty minutes in an NHL contest in the past 21 years.
"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," his statement 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."
Lemieux did not specify what he would have preferred from the NHL, and Penguins officials said he would not comment beyond his statement. Penguins players declined comment on the statement and the NHL's response to Friday's fight-marred game.
League officials traveled from Toronto to Buffalo to hold disciplinary hearings with Islanders management and players Saturday night.
Yesterday's statement is similar to Lemieux's criticism as a player in 1992, when he described the NHL as a "garage league."
Several team officials advised him against releasing a statement before yesterday's game against the New York Rangers.
Much of the organization's frustration stems from the NHL not disciplining Washington's David Steckel or Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman last month for blindside hits to Penguins center Sidney Crosby, the franchise's greatest asset and the NHL's leading scorer at the time of the hits.
Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 5 because of a concussion, and his return this season is not guaranteed.
Lemieux's statement did not address the Crosby case.
However, the shock expressed privately by NHL officials and fellow team owners suggested Lemieux is bothered by bigger issues than a dissatisfaction with the league's disciplinary action against the Islanders.
The game featured 346 penalty minutes, 15 fighting majors and 11 game misconducts.
"What happened Friday night on Long Island wasn't hockey. It was a travesty," Lemieux's statement said. "It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that."
NHL disciplinary czar Colin Campbell fined the Islanders $100,000 and suspended left wing Trevor Gillies for nine games and left wing Matt Martin for four.
The Islanders were comfortably ahead from the start and won 9-3. They had talked openly about wanting to send a message after the teams' Feb. 2 game at Consol Energy Center, which spawned fights at the end of the game, including Penguins goalie Brent Johnson breaking bones in the face of Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro's face.
The Islanders' message on Friday included Martin's sucker punch to the face of Penguins forward Max Talbot and Gillies' blindside elbow to Penguins winger Eric Tangradi. Tangradi showed concussion symptoms and did not play yesterday.
In the third period Friday, Penguins right wing Eric Godard left the bench to fight Islanders center Michael Haley, who had sought out Johnson to fight. The NHL suspended Godard for 10 games.
"We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players," Lemieux said. "We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action."
Critics have noted that the Penguins employ a player widely regarded as the NHL's dirtiest -- left wing Matt Cooke. He is serving a four-game suspension for a blindside hit last Tuesday on Columbus defenseman Fedor Tytuin.
Cooke has been disciplined multiple times by the NHL for illegal hits, and his open-ice check on Boston's Marc Savard last March led NHL general managers to draft a rule designed to address blindside hits.
Rule 48 was implemented this season, but many within the Penguins organization -- including CEO/president David Morehouse -- believe firmer wording is needed to eliminate hits to the head and from behind.
The Penguins, Lemieux in particular, began taking a social-media beating within minutes of his statement yesterday.
As members of the Twitter-verse noted, Godard received only the mandatory 10-game suspension for leaving the bench, a one-game suspension of Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was rescinded, and the team was not fined.
Islanders general manager Garth Snow said he was "proud our team showed restraint" with no players leaving the bench to fight. The Islanders "came to play hockey," he added.
"When I saw the suspensions on both sides and the fines, I was a little bit surprised it was just our club that got fined," Snow said yesterday before the Islanders played at Buffalo. "You can ask the league about it."
The NHL avoided a public debate involving Lemieux, Snow or anybody from their clubs.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly would not comment on Lemieux's criticism.
"We are entirely comfortable with how Friday night's events were handled," Daly told the Tribune-Review. "We have no other response to Mr. Lemieux's statement."
It remains unclear whether Lemieux actually would entertain the idea of selling the Penguins, whose home sellout streak of nearly 200 games has carried over from the Civic Arena to the first-year Consol Energy Center, whose $321 million cost partially was covered by taxpayer money.
The Penguins have the highest U.S. regional television ratings for any NHL team. They are worth $235 million, according to 2010 ratings by Forbes.
A group headed by Lemieux and California billionaire Ron Burkle purchased the Penguins from bankruptcy in 1999 for $107 million. Through representatives, Burkle declined comment yesterday.
Text of Lemieux's statement
'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.
'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.'Additional Information:
NHL fines, suspensions
NHL disciplinary action taken against players from the Penguins-Islanders game Friday night:
Eric Godard, Penguins ; Suspended 10 games; lost salary totals $40,322; offense: leaving bench for altercation
Trevor Gillies, Islanders: Suspended nine games; lost salary totals $24,193; offense: blow to head, punches
Matt Martin, Islanders: Suspended four games; lost salary totals $41,585; offense: punching from behind
Islanders team: Fined $100,000