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Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux answers a question at a news conference before the start of Game 1 between the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL Stanley Cup finals hockey series in Detroit, Saturday, May 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Paul Sancya)
Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux answers a question at a news conference before the start of Game 1 between the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL Stanley Cup finals hockey series in Detroit, Saturday, May 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Paul Sancya)

David Shoalts

Mario Lemieux rips NHL on Islanders suspensions Add to ...

From his glass house, Mario Lemieux fired a stone right at the NHL.



"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," the Pittsburgh Penguins owner thundered Sunday in a statement posted to the team's website. "It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.

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"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."



The cause of Lemieux's outrage was a violent game last Friday night between his Penguins and the New York Islanders. On Saturday, NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell held face-to-face hearings with Islander players Trevor Gillies and Matt Martin. On Sunday, Campbell suspended Gillies for nine games, Martin for four games and fined the Islanders $100,000 (all currency U.S.). That was clearly not enough for Lemieux.



Eric Godard was the only Penguins player suspended, receiving an automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to fight.



Gillies gave the Penguins' Eric Tangradi a blindside check to the head and then punched him several times which left the player injured. Martin attacked Penguins forward Max Talbot from behind and punched him several times on the head. Godard was suspended for leaving the bench to come to the aid of goaltender Brent Johnson, who was attacked by Islander enforcer Micheal Haley.



The hard feelings between the teams were brewing since their previous meeting nine days ago. Johnson injured Isles goaltender Rick DiPietro in a fight and Talbot escaped punishment for a hit that left Islander forward Blake Comeau injured.



Lemieux's angry reaction, in which he pondered getting out of the league, was almost without precedent from not only a team owner but one of the seminal figures in the game. However, it is not as if he is new to this.



Back in his playing days, during the 1991-92 season, Lemieux complained long and loud that NHL referees encouraged players of lesser talent to beat up on stars like him by not calling penalties. He said then that the NHL was "a garage league."



However, Lemieux and the Penguins are hardly in position to be throwing stones at the league about its attitude toward violence, even if there is the high-profile case of Sidney Crosby sitting on the sidelines for the last six weeks with a concussion stemming from head shots.



The Penguins have the most penalty minutes in the NHL at 1,101 before Sunday's games. They also have the most fighting majors, 63, seven more than the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues, who are tied for second.



Finally, there is the matter of Matt Cooke. The Penguins forward earned himself the reputation as the worst cheap-shot artist in the NHL with a blindside hit on Marc Savard early last season that knocked the Boston Bruins centre out for the rest of the season and now has him contemplating retirement. One of Cooke's more recent questionable hits was on the NHL's other superstar, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.



Lemieux's outrage in 1991 created a big stir but in those days there was no social media to offer immediate and widespread reaction. On Sunday, that reaction went mostly the same way.



"Mario Lemieux, who never says a peep about Matt Cooke, pipes up about Islanders," Larry Brooks of the New York Post posted on Twitter, words echoed in tweets by other reporters and fans. John Shannon of Rogers Sportsnet even offered a dig from one of Lemieux's fellow NHL governors: "If Mario would like to change the game, maybe he should show up at the meetings."



There was also a dart from your agent, but one thing should be remembered about the NHL even if the house of the fellow casting the first stone is not without sin.



Historically, the league moves at a glacial pace on issues, as we see every day on the matter of head shots and concussions. But when one of its icons pipes up, hockey people listen, like they did when Crosby called for tougher sanctions against hits to the head in the wake of his injury.



Lemieux may have some of his own housecleaning to do but every team has a Matt Cooke to some degree or another. That is why change is needed, in player culture, in the rule book and in better equipment.



However, the NHL's immediate reaction does not bring hope for change. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told TSN, "We are entirely comfortable with how Friday night's events were handled. We have no other response to Mr. Lemieux's statement."

 

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