Vancouver Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault says he believes Alex Burrows's version of a pregame conversation with referee Stéphane Auger this week, and vows that the team will back its player as strongly as the NHL backs its official.
The league said yesterday that Auger was wrong to approach Burrows and open old wounds before Monday's game against the Nashville Predators. But Colin Campbell, the league's director of hockey operations, contends that Auger was not out to settle an individual score, despite Burrows's accusations to the contrary.
"I think the circumstantial evidence proves that Alex was right," Vigneault said. "I respect the league's decision, and I understand their decision to fine him. I do agree that he should have done it another way. But at the end of the day, I believe Alex Burrows."
Campbell said it was "inappropriate" for officials to frustrate players and coaches by raising historical grievances in warm-up periods, but the NHL's chief disciplinarian stopped short of endorsing a blanket rule against pregame conversations. He said Auger should have picked a better time to warn Burrows.
Burrows was fined $2,500 (U.S.) for accusing Auger of bias following the 3-2 loss to Nashville. The 28-year-old forward was called for two marginal penalties in the third period, one of which led to the game-winning goal.
Afterward, Burrows said Auger approached him before the game and revealed plans to get even for a run-in between the two on Dec. 8. The league ruled Wednesday that the conversation could not be independently verified and that Auger, who has not been disciplined, was beyond reproach.
The official denied making the remarks when questioned by the NHL.
"That's fine," said Burrows, who has been muzzled by the Canucks. "The decision has been made. We're moving on."
In interviews yesterday, Campbell said Burrows did not physically react during the conversation with Auger, which was caught by cameras, and never mentioned Auger's alleged threat until being called for the penalties. Vigneault said Burrows was stunned by Auger's frankness, and revealed the comments only after he felt wronged by a phantom interference penalty with less than five minutes remaining.
"It was very emotional, and you don't make that stuff up," Vigneault said of Burrows's postgame tirade. "Now, I understand why the league is defending their employee, but we're going to defend our employee. And the circumstantial evidence in my mind, and in our organization's mind, we believe Alex."
In the Dec. 8 game, Auger assessed Predators forward Jerred Smithson a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct for a hit on Burrows.
The NHL later rescinded Smithson's misconduct because it ruled that Burrows fooled Auger with an embellished reaction. The referee was called before NHL director of officiating Terry Gregson and told that it should have been a two-minute penalty.