Not only was Mario Lemieux one of the very best to ever play in the NHL, he also was vocal. He was critical of NHL culture, mostly the hooking, cross-checking and holding that occurred back in his day. It not only impeded the skill level on the ice, but also contributed to his own back problems which forced him to take long breaks from the game.
We know that Le Magnifique is now an owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and most everyone is aware of the recent events between the Pens and the New York Islanders. A quick refresher…
In the final minute of a February 2 game, while the Penguins were leading 3-0, a brawl erupted. During the event, Brent Johnson, goalie for PIT, clocked Rick DiPietro, goalie for NYI, knocking him out of action and onto the injured list.
In the February 11 rematch, the Islanders led 1-0 when the first fight between Michael Haley and Craig Adams occurred. The Isles built a 6-0 lead, and eventually won 9-3. However, the game was marred by a number of incidents resulting in well over 300 penalty minutes assessed. Among them, Eric Tangradi of the Penguins was knocked flat by a Trevor Gillies elbow, and Gillies attempted to engage him in a fight while he was down. Also, Haley attempted to engage Brent Johnson in a fight, only to have Eric Godard of the Pens leave the bench to defend his goalie. Ultimately, the NHL disciplined Godard 10 games for leaving the bench. The Islanders’ Matt Martin was assessed 4 games, Gillies 9 games, and the franchise fined $100,000.
On February 13, Mario Lemieux issued a statement concerning the NHL’s handling of the matter. In part, it reads…
“Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. But what happened Friday night… was a travesty… painful to watch… a sideshow… 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.”
Strong words from a powerful voice in the league. But, reaction to Lemieux’s statement has been mixed. And with some good reason. Lemieux’s roster in Pittsburgh includes one Matt Cooke.
Before everyone starts saying Matt Cooke is irrelevant to the issue, or that I am condoning the Islanders actions, let me say that is not the case. I grew up watching the Big Bad Bruins and the Broad Street Bullies and watched Tiger Williams every Saturday night. I love a good fight, even a couple of fights. But, what the Islanders did was not about ‘The Code’ or taking some revenge. It was an orchestrated brawl, and included some very dangerous incidents that showed a clear intent to injure an opponent.
And that’s where Lemieux has a problem. He employs Matt Cooke. Cooke has built himself a reputation as a dirty hockey player. In November of 2008, he was suspended 2 games for a blow to the head of Artem Anisimov. In January 2009 he got another 2 for a hit to Scott Walker’s head. Most well known, in March 2010, Cooke delivered a hit to Marc Savard’s noggin that put him out 2 months and is likely the catalyst that will see Savard retire due to head troubles. This season, Cooke made a questionable hit on Alex Ovechkin during a February 5 game, in which it appears Cooke led with his leg to injure Ovechkin’s knee. On February 8, Cooke ran Fedor Tyutin. Some will argue Tyutin turned his back making the hit worse. The replay shows that Tyutin did turn, but Cooke was still in the faceoff circle when he did, suggesting Cooke could have bailed out of the hit once he saw Tyutin’s numbers. The fact remains that Cooke lined him up, skated in, left his feet and attempted to drive Tyutin through the boards and about 10 rows up into the stands.
Where was the Magnificent 66 on these incidents? All of them occurred while Cooke was a member of the Pens. There are rumors that members of Pitt’s management have talked to Cooke, tried to bring him in line. But, Cooke plays a regular shift with the Pens, and to my knowledge has never been benched for disciplinary reasons. And despite talk from other GMs like Peter Chiarelli or former players like Jeremy Roenick, Lemieux has never commented on the actions of his own player, much less denounced them or talked about how anyone has failed to protect other players.
Mario is correct. The NHL could have taken larger steps in the wake of the Isles-Pens brawl. But Mario stops short of mentioning that his own player, Cooke, is currently serving 4 games for his attempt to injure Tyutin. That’s it, 4 games, for a repeat offender, who has served 2 suspensions already for the same reason.
Hockey is not about trying to put guys in the hospital. The NHL is struggling to find a solution to protecting players while keeping the speed, aggression and physical contact that are integral to the game. And it will take input from many levels; players, former players, owners, coaches, etc. Unfortunately for Mario, his intentions may have been good, but he comes off as hypocritical because he tacitly approves of players being injured, so long as the one doing the damage wears a Penguins uniform.