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The National Hockey League, still wearing a black eye from the Marty McSorley affair, has stepped into another mess courtesy of the New Jersey Devils' Scott Niedermayer and the Florida Panthers' Peter Worrell.

The latest affair has several layers. On Sunday night, Niedermayer whacked the top of Worrell's helmet with his stick. Worrell directed a throat-slash gesture, which is banned in the National Football League, at the Devils' bench.

Niedermayer's chop to the top of Worrell's helmet "was as bad as [Marty]McSorley's," Florida assistant coach Bill Smith told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

The NHL scheduled a hearing for Niedermayer today to decide on further disciplinary action. The league is also looking at Dallas forward Scott Thornton, who highsticked Marco Sturm in a 5-3 win over the San Jose Sharks Sunday night.

On Friday, meanwhile, Worrell was forced to apologize for joking about hitting his girlfriend while disparaging Pittsburgh's Darius Kasparaitis, whom he floored with a right hook in a 4-2 loss to the Penguins the night before.

"I hit him in the chest. I've had fights with my girlfriend and hit her harder than that," Worrell said after the game.

Florida GM Bryan Murray called Worrell's comments "stupid, intolerable and ill-advised."

Niedermayer's chop to Worrell's head on Sunday sparked a brawl featuring the two players and resulted in 75 penalty minutes handed out with 1:45 remaining in the Devils' 5-2 victory.

Three players from each team were sent off the ice, including Niedermayer and Worrell, who were assessed game misconducts.

"I realize it wasn't the right thing to do," Niedermayer said. "I'll probably be suspended. I don't know what the league will do."

Worrell and teammates Paul Laus and Todd Simpson were sent off by referees Dan Marouelli and Scott Zelkin, along with Niedermayer and Devils teammates Bobby Holik and Randy McKay.

"Anyone who has played the game of hockey knew that was going to happen," Devils coach Robbie Ftorek said. "I know there will be repercussions."

Panthers captain Scott Mellanby lamented how the game has changed.

"I didn't see it [the chop] but I heard it was pretty bad," Mellanby said. "I don't understand it. It used to be guys defended themselves with honour. Niedermayer is a world-class player. If he wanted a piece of Peter, he could have had it."

Worrell may have fanned the flames by taking down Devils defenceman Colin White with a forearm across the throat earlier in the game and hitting New Jersey forwards Sergei Brylin and Jay Pandolfo with high elbows.

Worrell, who did not speak to the media after the game, inflamed matters when he made the throat-slashing gesture.

"I guess he would get fined if he was in the NFL," Niedermayer told the Newark Star-Ledger. "The guy had his elbows up all night and the refs didn't do anything about it.

"Maybe if the refs called more elbowing, or if he went in after the puck the right way, none of this would have happened."

Goaltender Martin Brodeur said of Worrell's gesture: "Gestures like that are not healthy for the game."

Devils tough guy Krzysztof Oliwa was also disturbed.

"Is this a pickup game or the NHL?" he asked. "You don't like seeing things like that on the ice, with him slicing his neck. It's unacceptable in the NHL. You don't forget things like that, and we'll be ready for him the next time."

The Panthers and Devils meet twice more this season: April 3 and 8.

As for Worrell's comments about hitting his girlfriend, an apology was issued the next day.

"I never have and never will hit my girlfriend," the 6-foot-6, 235-pound winger said Friday. "I never have or will hit any female. It's not something I believe in. In fact, it's something that I find the most cowardly thing a man can do in this world, to lay his hands on a woman. It's just not what I'm about.

"I apologize that it was taken as such and people assume that's what it was meant to be," he said of his original comments. "But anybody who does know me, has been around me, knows that it's the last thing I would ever do."

Murray said the team would discipline Worrell but said the exact nature of the punishment would be kept in-house.

"We have too much respect for people, ladies and gentlemen, that that should be taken lightly."

As for Sturm, the victim of Thornton's high stick, a walnut-size lump on his left temple was visible after the game.

"He can go after me, but to get his stick up, that's a different story," Sturm told the San Jose Mercury News.

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