The NHL intended to deliver a message to all of its players when it punished the New York Islanders over the weekend. It didn’t go nearly far enough for one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Mario Lemieux questioned the direction of the league in a scathing statement released Sunday, openly wondering about his future involvement with the NHL after his Pittsburgh Penguins were involved in a fight-filled game with the Islanders.
“Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be,” said Lemieux, the Penguins co-owner. “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.”
The reaction from Lemieux came a little over 12 hours after Colin Campbell suspended two Islanders players and fined the organization US$100,000.
The NHL disciplinarian travelled to Buffalo on Saturday night and held face-to-face meetings with forwards Trevor Gillies and Matt Martin to discuss their actions. Within hours, Gillies was suspended nine games and Martin was banned four games.
It wasn’t enough to satisfy Lemieux.
“We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players,” the Hockey Hall of Famer said in his statement. “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.”
Lemieux didn’t specify exactly what he would have liked to have seen done.
Pittsburgh’s Eric Godard also received an automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to fight during the game. The Penguins weren’t hit with any other discipline.
The Islanders entered Friday’s game still bitter about their previous meeting with Pittsburgh and seemed intent to take matters into their own hands. Gillies gave Eric Tangradi a concussion—hitting him in the head before punching him in the face and taunting him—while Martin grabbed an unsuspecting Max Talbot and dropped him with a couple punches.
In announcing the suspensions, Campbell warned that punishments will continue to be harsh for similar infractions down the road.
“The message should be clear to all players: targeting the head of an opponent by whatever means will be dealt with by suspension,” he said.
Organizations will also be held accountable.
“The Islanders also must bear some responsibility for their failure to control their players,” added Campbell.
Lemieux bought the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999 and ended his playing career for good in January 2006. During his days as one of the NHL’s brightest stars, he was never shy to criticize the league—famously referring to it as a “garage league” in 1992 when he was frustrated with all of the hooking and holding that was being allowed at the time.
Until Sunday, he had been largely quiet as an owner.
The Penguins have been at the centre of the discussion about dangerous hits that has raged in recent weeks. Star centre Sidney Crosby remains sidelined with a concussion—there is still no timetable for his return—while Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke received a four-game suspension on Thursday for charging Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets from behind.
In fact, the Penguins are quite familiar with physical play. Entering Sunday’s games, they were tops in the league with 61 fighting majors.
The game against the Islanders included 346 penalty minutes and 10 ejections. Pittsburgh was hammered 9-3.
It came after a Feb. 2 meeting between the teams that saw the Islanders lose Rick DiPietro for four-to-six weeks because of broken bones in his face as the result of a punch from Penguins goalie Brent Johnson.
New York forward Michael Haley went after Johnson on Friday night, prompting Godard to leave the bench in defence of his goaltender.
There were no complaints from the Islanders organization after Campbell made his ruling. Asked if the punishment was fair, GM Garth Snow said the league disciplinarian has a tough job and he would never criticize him.
“I respect the process,” Snow said Sunday before the Islanders played at Buffalo. “It was a professionally run process.”
Campbell has been particularly busy this season. NHL players have been banned a total of 88 regular-season games over 27 suspensions—surpassing last year’s total of 78 games in 29 suspensions.
— With files from The Associated Press.