In a normal week, Sidney Crosby's second visit to Vancouver would be the talk of the town, and all eyes at General Motors Place would be on the Pittsburgh Penguins captain.
But for the Canucks and their fans, this hasn't been a normal week, and many of the 18,000 plus in the arena tonight will be watching the officials, especially when they interact, or penalize, Vancouver forward Alex Burrows. That much is assured after Burrows's explosive contention that referee Stéphane Auger was guilty of bias during a 3-2 loss to the Nashville Predators last Monday.
"If the fans of Vancouver are going to let this affect their trust in the game, then I don't know what to say … we work hard at protecting the integrity of the game," NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell said. "Our job, and our officials' job, is to be impartial. We're not going to bend over backwards trying to defend the fact that we have integrity."
At the very least, the public trust has been shaken. Vancouver hockey fans will watch NHL officials more carefully, judging their neutrality and, by extension, the honesty of the league's competition.
"I can't control what the people think in Vancouver," said Campbell, who added that he believed Canucks fans were upset because public opinion was on Auger's side. "This called the integrity of all our officials into question, which is really disheartening."
Campbell would not comment when asked if his review of the Burrows-Auger matter determined that two third-period penalties on Burrows - both of them questionable - were correct. He also failed to disclose whether Auger would be disciplined for approaching Burrows in pregame warm-up and raising a personal grievance from a Dec. 8 game. Campbell has said the conversation took place at an "inappropriate" time.
Last Thursday, Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault said that Burrows should have handled the matter privately, but he launched a vigorous defence of his player and said the circumstantial evidence supports the five-year veteran's conclusion that he was unfairly targeted.
Burrows wasn't questioning the quality of NHL officiating - which is what Campbell usually hears - rather the impartiality of a specific NHL referee. This was no ordinary complaint about an honest mistake. It was an extraordinary claim - cited in chapter and verse - about what Burrows felt was a dishonest mistake.
Still, Campbell said that should not have meant a change in the procedure. He said Vancouver hockey fans should trust the league's administration of justice in the matter, even if the Burrows-Auger review was conducted behind closed doors.
"I don't think the process should've been more transparent," Campbell said. "It shouldn't change how the system works because one player went public after a loss."
Burrows, who was fined $2,500 (U.S.), said that Auger's pregame comments came with a pledge that he would exact revenge from a slight earlier this season. The referee denied making that statement when questioned by the league.
The Canucks winger made Auger look bad on Dec. 8, when he embellished an injury and persuaded the referee to asses a five-minute penalty and game misconduct on Nashville's Jerred Smithson. The misconduct was later rescinded by the league, and Auger was told by his superiors that Smithson deserved a minor penalty.
Campbell, the league's chief disciplinarian, said the Auger case was not closed because officials are judged on their work throughout the season.
It is likely that the referee will not work another Canucks game this season, and Campbell conceded that officials must show players and coaches more respect than what they receive, and make sure their attitude doesn't "alienate or aggravate" a competitor.
"We will address aspects of this at the manager's meetings," he said. "This was not good for the game of hockey."