The integrity of NHL competition and the impartiality of its officials were cast into doubt yesterday after some candid comments from Vancouver Canucks forward Alex Burrows.
Following a 3-2 loss to the Nashville Predators on Monday, Burrows accused NHL referee Stéphane Auger of acting on a personal vendetta. Remarkably, Burrows said the referee told him that he planned to even a score before the puck was dropped.
His claims were supported by a phantom interference penalty in the third period, which led to the game-winning goal, and video that showed Auger and Burrows in discussion before the game began. When asked if he saw the interference penalty, Canucks associate captain Henrik Sedin replied: "No one saw it."
Yesterday, the NHL began two reviews. As a result of the first review, Burrows was fined $2,500 (U.S.) for his post-game comments. There was no suspension. The second review involves Auger's work.
"I can't comment directly on the officiating or else I'll get fined, so we're just going to support Alex however we can," Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said when asked if the organization stood by its player's comments. "It comes from a guy who I think is of impeccable character, and we're going to support him."
NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, during a brief interview yesterday, would only confirm that a review was taking place.
"Everyone is making a lot to do of it," Campbell said. "But I can't comment until we do what we have to do."
For years, fans have been in the dark, wondering whether officials had axes to grind against certain teams or players. Hockey professionals are loath to talk about such things, however, believing that public outings would only anger officials, and embolden them to make more calls against the men who cried wolf.
Burrows had no such fear. He said NHL players and more than 18,000 paying customers at GM Place deserved better than what Auger delivered on Monday. The veteran referee has refused interview requests, and a message left yesterday for the NHL Officials Association was not returned.After the game, Burrows said that Auger approached him during warm-up and told him that he planned to get even for an embarrassing mistake earlier this season. Auger assessed a five-minute charging penalty - and a game misconduct - to Nashville's Jerred Smithson for a hit on Burrows in a Dec. 8 game. But the NHL later expunged the game misconduct from Smithson's record - a tacit admission that Auger had been duped by Burrows's embellished reaction.
"He said, 'I saw the replay, you got your head up, you weren't really hurt, and you made me look bad so I'm going to get you back tonight,'." Burrows said. "And he did."
Those explosive comments rippled through the NHL yesterday. Players were careful not to align themselves against officials, but they were also intrigued by Burrows's candour and the difficult situation he has created for the NHL and its officials.
"I don't want to be the league having to figure out how to address that," Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Aaron Ward said.
Some players, who asked not to be identified, said Auger is not beloved by the rank and file, and one player said he is considered among the league's worst referees. The 39-year-old from Montreal has been officiating since 1999, but has worked just 10 playoff games, according to the NHLOA's website.
Also yesterday, Vancouver hockey fans lit up talk shows questioning the NHL's neutrality. Roughly 70 per cent of respondents to a Team 1040 AM poll said that they believed the Canucks were a "marked" team by the NHL.
Auger ejected Burrows from a game in Montreal last season, but is most notable for accusing Phoenix Coyotes forward Shane Doan of uttering an anti-Francophone comment in 2005. The NHL investigated and absolved Doan of wrongdoing.
Burrows, meanwhile, is no angel. The fifth-year forward has a reputation as one of the mouthiest players in the league, and he is not above a strategic dive if it will draw a penalty or knock an opponent off his game.
"Seeing the player this is coming from, I'm not surprised," Montreal Canadiens enforcer Georges Laraque said.
"No one likes a tattletale," Calgary Flames centre Craig Conroy added. "That's kind of what it looked like to me. Maybe he's got a valid point and if he does, then someone's in big trouble."
Burrows, 28, was assessed three minor penalties in the game, including two questionable ones in the third period. He was sent off for diving - a rare call - and then again for interference, before being given a 10-minute misconduct with less than four seconds remaining, after he shared his opinion with Auger.
He issued his comments from a stationary bicycle in the Canucks weight room and as he spoke, his teammates' ears perked up. Veteran defenceman Brad Lukowich cracked a wry smile as Burrows took the hockey public behind the curtain and into an area - officials with personal biases - that is rarely discussed by players.
"It's going to be his word against the referee's word and no one's ever going to admit to that," Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Garnet Exelby said. "From the referee's side, I'm sure they don't forget those kinds of things. If they're verbally abused every time by the same player, I think they're going to definitely remember that, whether they consciously or subconsciously make up for it down the road, that's a different story."
Two attempts were made to muzzle Burrows. The first came from a team communications official. The second came from team captain Roberto Luongo after Burrows continued to answer questions.
After he was shushed by his teammate, Burrows carried on in French - presumably for Luongo, the only bilingual Canuck in earshot - before being escorted into head coach Alain Vigneault's office by a team employee. Vigneault said he was aware of history between Burrows and Auger, but stopped short of criticizing the officials.
Burrows was not the only Canuck scratching his head. Luongo said he has "never seen anything like it" while Henrik Sedin said some calls were "brutal."
"I took three minors and all of them were good calls, but there were others that were very, very, very questionable," Sedin said. "The standard was one way for a few guys and different for certain guys."
With reports from Sean Gordon, James Mirtle, David Shoalts, Eric Duhatschek and The Canadian Press