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Referee Stephane Auger watches action between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calgary Flames in Calgary, Jan. 13, 2010. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Referee Stephane Auger watches action between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calgary Flames in Calgary, Jan. 13, 2010. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Eric Duhatschek

NHL tries hard to sweep Auger affair under the rug Add to ...

A little more than an hour before puck drop, the NHL issued its verdict: Alex Burrows fined $2,500 (U.S.) for conduct deemed detrimental to the league; referee Stephane Auger exonerated of all charges.

Well, who's surprised?

It was always in the NHL's best interest to make the Burrows-Auger conflict go away as quickly and quietly as possible. Never mind if the truth - or the details of the conversation that passed between the Vancouver Canucks' player and the nine-year NHL refereeing veteran - ever becomes public. Burrows alleged that Auger told him he was out to get him prior to Monday's game between the Canucks and Nashville Predators - and then followed through on the threat by issuing three minor penalties against him.

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Burrows was passionately outspoken about what was said. Auger gave his side of the story to Colin Campbell, the NHL's senior vice president of hockey operations, in a telephone call the next day. On Wednesday night, or just before Auger took the ice for his next assignment - a marquee match-up between Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Jarome Iginla's Calgary Flames - Campbell issued a statement saying that Burrows's account of Auger's comments to him before the game "cannot be substantiated."

"I firmly believe that nothing inappropriate was said and that Referee Auger's intentions were beyond reproach," added Campbell.

So there.

Burrows, on the other hand, received the maximum fine permitted under the collective bargaining agreement for saying, in the aftermath of the Canucks' 3-2 loss, that the minor penalties assessed against him by Auger for diving, interference and unsportsmanlike conduct were "personal. It started in warm-up before the anthem. The ref [Auger]came over to me and said I made him look bad in Nashville on the [Jerred]Smithson hit [during a game December 8, 2009] He said he was going to get me back tonight and he did his job in the third …"

Campbell's response: "The National Hockey League will not tolerate the personal nature of the comments Mr. Burrows directed at Referee Auger or the fact that he brought into question the integrity of both the official and the game."

Campbell also said in an e-mail note that Auger would not be available for interviews following the Flames-Penguins game.

Auger didn't get much of a reaction from the sellout crowd in Calgary, which seemed to be paying more attention to the Penguins' star-studded lineup, than to the evening's signal callers. Brad Watson also worked the game alongside Auger, who called a tripping penalty against the Penguins' Alex Goligoski 1:27 into the game that was an obvious and straightforward call.

The league's intent here was clear. Burrows's allegations - if proven or even acknowledged by the league in any tacit way - could create a major integrity issue for the NHL. More than anything else, that's why the investigation was carried on in such a hurry-up fashion - so that Auger wouldn't miss a regularly scheduled assignment, even if Burrows argued he should not get to call another game all year.

It remains to be seen if the matter simply goes away now - or if the Canucks try to pursue the matter with the league by offering corroborative evidence for Burrows's statement. There had been a suggestion that Burrows confided in back-up goaltender Andrew Raycroft about the Auger exchange prior to the game. If so, that might be seen as further evidence in support of his position.

It is unlikely that the NHL would willingly go down any path that would keep the matter on the front burner. As far as it's concerned, the case is closed, the story is dead, and that the past 48 hours featured a lot of sound and fury that amounted to nothing.

For practical purposes, the Canucks may also opt for the path of least resistance. Already now there are fears that Burrows's public excoriation of a member in good standing of the NHL Officials' Association will haunt the organization in the weeks and months to come - and is that good for business?

In the end, they may decide that building bridges, rather than burning them, is the way to go. If that turns out to be the case; and if Burrows clams up under orders, then the league will have swept the matter, cleanly and efficiently, under the rug.

Of course, by leaving so many questions frustratingly unanswered, the NHL risks alienating the ticket-buying public, some of whom have wondered - on chat boards all across the Internet these past 48 hours - that the trust they previously held in the game has been replaced by suspicion. That's the sort of damage that cannot easily be repaired, no matter how bright a spin the NHL puts on the matter. Thank Alex Burrows for that.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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