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NHL Players are supporting Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux and his criticism of the NHL for its recent suspensions against the New York Islanders. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn)
NHL Players are supporting Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux and his criticism of the NHL for its recent suspensions against the New York Islanders. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn)

David Shoalts

Players, management have Mario Lemieux's back Add to ...

Reaction to Mario Lemieux's outrage at the NHL diverged along player and management lines Monday.

The Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner's stature among the players remains strong enough that most said they understood when questioned about Lemieux's anger that the NHL did not issue stiffer suspensions and fines to the New York Islanders and their players as a result of a violent game against his Penguins.

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"When Mario says something it's got to be heard and respected," Montreal Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri said.

The reaction was universal on the management side, too, but far from approving. Several governors repeated a prevailing argument from the past couple of days, that anyone who employs a controversial player like Matt Cooke and whose team leads the NHL in penalty minutes and major penalties for fighting can hardly slam the league for not making the game safer for players by coming down hard on offenders.

There were also governors who noted Lemieux rarely involves himself in league affairs, does not attend governors' meetings and then expects his peers to listen. One governor pointed out NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL went to bat for Lemieux twice over the years, seeing that he emerged as a part-owner of the team in the Penguins' bankruptcy in 1999 to preserve most of the $32.5-million (all currency U.S.) the team owed him in deferred contract money and again a few years ago to push for a new arena in Pittsburgh that greatly increased the value of the franchise.

As for Lemieux's statement he might reconsider whether he wants to remain part of the NHL, none of the governors took it seriously.

Bettman was silent on the matter Monday but decided not to fine Lemieux for his criticism of the league.

The only two management figures contacted who spoke on the record Monday were Brian Burke, president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Jim Devellano, senior vice-president of the Detroit Red Wings. Both supported the league, which suspended Islanders players Trevor Gillies and Matt Martin for nine and four games, respectively, and fined the Islanders $100,000. Eric Godard was the only Penguins player suspended, receiving an automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join a fight.

"I thought the league acted responsibly, professionally and very quickly," Devellano said. "We can't have that stuff in the game."

Burke said much the same: "It was something from the '70s. I was pleased with the league's harsh but appropriate action here."

No governors could be found who were pleased with Lemieux, although some said they understand his frustration because the Penguins lost superstar Sidney Crosby to a concussion from a head hit last month and neither player who hit him was suspended.

But, several governors said, the league is taking steps to deal with head shots and concussions and Lemieux cannot dip in and out of league affairs only when it suits him. All the governors questioned said Lemieux's refusal to attend their meetings gives him no influence with his fellow owners.

One governor said Bettman made sure Lemieux received a 25-per-cent stake in the Penguins when the current ownership group led by Ron Burkle was put together. That represented $20-million of the money Lemieux was owed and he also received $5-million in cash. Then, thanks in part to a push from Bettman, although Lemieux worked on it as well, the new Consol Energy Center ensured the value of the Penguins is now about $250-million.

"Mario could have been an active owner if he desired," one governor said. "He's got 25 per cent of a franchise that's valued at 250 million [dollars]

"If Mario doesn't want to be an owner, get out and sell your 25 per cent. You were made whole. You were great for the league and league's been very good to you as well."

The governor also predicted Wayne Gretzky, who lost out on $22-million he was owed by the Phoenix Coyotes when the team was bought out of bankruptcy by the NHL, will be looked after by the league. The governor said he didn't know how it would be done but thinks it could happen when the pending sale of the Coyotes to Matthew Hulsizer for $170-million is finished.

Among the players, even though the general feeling was that fighting should remain part of hockey, Lemieux's criticism carried more weight.

"I'm still a traditionalist," Canadiens centre Scott Gomez said. "I can't imagine the game without fighting, and I'm probably the biggest wuss out there."

As for Lemieux, Gomez added, "That's the last guy we want saying he doesn't want to be part of the game. He's right up there with Gretzky, he still has a presence even when he's not on the ice. You see him in the building, you're a little kid again, it's Mario Lemieux."

With a report from Sean Gordon in Montreal

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

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