Wednesday, January 13, 2010

NHL punishes the wrong whistleblower

In case you missed it, Monday’s game in Vancouver against Nashville had some interesting fall out. Canucks’ forward Alexander Burrows claimed that referee Stephane Auger intentionally targeted him in the 3-2 Vancouver loss. Why did Auger target him? According to Burrows' post-game comments, it was because of a penalty Auger issued in a previous game on December 8th, where (according to Burrows) Auger allegedly claims Burrows embarrassed him by diving to exaggerate the call.

Burrows does have some supporting evidence. As you can see in the video, before the game, Auger is on tape approaching Burrows on the ice and speaking with him, where Burrows alleged the initial conversation took place. Then, in the third period in a 2-2 game, Auger whistled Burrows for two marginal penalties. The latter of the calls took Vancouver off a power play after only 4 seconds, with five minutes left in the game, leading to Shea Weber's game winning goal.

After the Nashville power play goal, Burrows received a misconduct with 3 seconds left in the game for letting Auger know what he thought of him.

Fast forward 48 hours, and the story is all over the internet. Many people felt Burrows should have kept his opinions to himself, or addressed them privately after the game. Many felt that Auger wronged Burrows and the Canucks, and that the evidence warrants an investigation and significant discipline.

The NHL. however. has chosen to fine Alexander Burrows for criticizing NHL officials. The fine amounts to $2,500, the maximum allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement. The NHL also decided, at least for now, to do nothing with regards to Auger.

That raises a few questions. First and foremost, how does Auger get away with no discipline?

The NHL has had a lot of negative press over the past year, so it should come as no surprise that rather than investigate this openly, or tackle the issue head on, they would rather sweep this under the rug and punish any dissent as quickly as possible.

I am of the opinion that while the officials are human, there is no standard of officiating in the NHL these days. Veteran officials like Bill McCreary are allowed to manage the game with their personal style. Vancouver’s previous game against Calgary saw several non-calls that are almost always penalties in the ‘new’ NHL, including a goaltender interference situation with Dion Phaneuf in overtime. Canucks’ coach Alain Vigneault was told that the officials ‘did not wish to decide the game on a goaltender interference penalty’. Yet two days later under Stephane Auger, there were many marginal calls both ways throughout the entire game. No wonder the players are so gun shy. One night something is a legal play, the next it’s a two minute minor.

Aside from the consistency issue between officials, the fear of speaking out may be more troubling. Many current and former players and media interviewed about the Burrows / Auger events speculated that the Canucks and Burrows may be subject to some type of vigilante justice by referees. Punishment by the 'brotherhood' or union, protecting the honour of Stephane Auger. Doesn't this sound like organized crime? Okay, maybe not organized crime, but the WWE?

We all know that referees are human and subject to subconscious biases towards or against certain players, as inevitably their paths will cross over their careers and opinions will form as emotions run high. But am I to believe that as a season ticket holder and a fan of the game that I have to accept officials settling grudges with players and altering the outcome of games as acceptable conduct?

I would not be surprised if this type of retribution went on in the NHL though. Look no further than Tim Donaghy, an NBA official who claims there were various rivalries between players and officials, and a system of altering outcomes of games that ran deep. Excerpts of Donaghy’s book can be found here.

His book was halted before it even reached the shelves, and I for one believe that there is at least an element of truth in what he is saying. It's insulting to fans' intelligence to suggest otherwise.

Here’s another potential example of the history between Auger and Burrows. In February 2008, Alex Burrows was evicted in a game against the Montreal Canadiens for a questionable call that left journalists perplexed.

If you think the NHL would not be victim to personal vendettas and agendas, think again. Remember Shane Doan? The Phoenix Coyotes’ captain was alleged to have uttered racial/cultural insults towards a referee a few years ago. Those charges were proven to be unfounded. Any bets on which NHL official made those claims? You guessed it, Stephane Auger.

Want one more example? Here it is. The very same crew that called the Nashville - Vancouver game officiated a Dallas Detroit game last year, with a horrible decision on a Detroit goal.

Now look, I’m not suggesting officials are not allowed to make mistakes, but there are two burning questions for me.

If the Nashville Vancouver game and the other examples above indicate severe misconduct on the part of Stephane Auger, he should not be allowed to officiate another game in the NHL.

On the other hand, if this is the type of honest officiating to expect from Stephane Auger, and this is the best we can expect, why is he officiating in the best hockey league in the world?

Either way, it’s not good enough.

Then again, if the NHL refuses to address these issues and investigate properly, the ‘best league in the world’ may not be an appropriate description of the NHL.

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