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From a purely optical position, this is the NHL's worst nightmare. Worse than head shots. Worse than concussions. Worse than bankruptcies in unsuitable non-traditional markets. Worse, dare we say, even than Jim Balsillie's unwanted overtures to join the lodge.

When Alex Burrows opened his mouth Tuesday night in the aftermath of a 3-2 Vancouver Canucks' loss to the Nashville Predators to complain about the work of referee Stephane Auger, he said what a lot of people have been thinking for a lot of years:

That NHL referees do hold grudges; they do carry out vendettas; and they can affect the outcome of games with their calls. The third point is perfectly fine by the way, provided a referee's erroneous call is simply an honest mistake.

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Anyone that's ever tried to referee a hockey game - at any level, from novice on up - can tell you the unabashed truth: It is much harder than it looks.

You could make the call correctly 100 per cent of the time from the bench, or from the stands, or from your living room couch, after the sixth replay. But try to do it in real time, with all the noise happening around you, all the action, so many bodies to watch - and soon enough you realize that the art of refereeing a game well is difficult and requires a skill set that only a few possess. Sorry, as unpopular as referees can sometimes be, that's the truth.

It is a daunting undertaking - to make a precise judgment in a heartbeat in a game that has never been faster and has so many eyes trained on the outcome of your call.

But the issue of making an honest mistake is far different than what Burrows alleged in the aftermath of the Canucks' loss to the Nashville Predators, an outcome that was directly related to a pair of penalties assessed by Auger in the latter stages - that led to Shea Weber's game-winning power-play goal.

Afterwards, under direct questioning, Burrows was pure raw emotion on display. He revealed that Auger had whispered in his ear during the pre-game warm-up and essentially promised that he'd extract his pound of flesh from the Canucks' winger.

Burrows crime? In a previous meeting between the two teams this season, Auger had assessed a major against the Predators' Jerred Smithson, a penalty that was eventually overturned by the league's hockey operations department because it looked as if Burrows might have dived on the play. In Burrows' version of events, that made Auger look bad in front of his bosses; and this represented the perfect chance to get even.

Auger will eventually get to tell his version of events, but he will be hard-pressed to come up with a viable explanation for why he took Burrows aside for a chat in the pre-game warm-up. To inquire about his health? Not so likely.

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Presumably, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, the NHL's first instinct would be to dismiss the thing out of hand and hoped that it just fades. Flamingo justice isn't going to work on an issue as serious as this, a direct challenge to the integrity of the league. In its own way, it is as potentially damaging as the revelations that NBA referee Tim Donaghy was guilty of gambling on basketball games that he worked.

Integrity is the bench mark of what the NHL sells - the notion that any team on any given night can win, fairly and squarely. If that perception ever falters - and suspicion arises that forces beyond the players on the ice are dictating the outcome - it would undermine the industry in a major significant way.

Just about everybody can remember back to a game in which a referee appeared to have it in for a player - in which he was unduly singled out for committing a series of phantom infractions.

This is hockey's dirty little secret - referees do have long memories - although it's hardly a secret, and unlikely limited just to hockey either.

But how commissioner Gary Bettman handles this tempest will be instructive - because no one understands better than Bettman how important it is to keep the squeaky clean image of the league alive. Mistakes can be tolerated. Chicanery can not.

So now that the genie's out of the bottle, an investigation will follow. It will need to be conducted with the highest levels of transparency, given how damaging the Burrows allegations were, and the immediate circumstantial evidence that there might even be something to it.

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Bettman has put out many fires in his time as NHL commissioner. On Tuesday, the blaze of a lifetime just landed in his lap - and for now anyway, looks as if it's going to burn out of control for a while.

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