"I don't want him to change the way he plays at all. When I said 'reckless,' I was using the term in fear of him getting hurt, not him hurting anyone else. He's got to be him. I don't want him to change."
- Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau on Alex Ovechkin, after Ovechkin's suspension-drawing knee-to-knee hit on Carolina's Tim Gleason, just weeks after Ovechkin was fined for a slew foot on Atlanta's Rich Peverley and months after Ovechkin injured Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar in the Playoffs on a nearly identical knee-to-knee hit.
As we all know by now, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux issued a statement criticizing the NHL's disciplinary reaction to the New York Islanders' conduct during the fight-filled Penguins/Islanders contest on Friday night. And because Mario Lemieux is Mario Lemieux and remains one of perhaps four living humans capable of doing something that results in a hockey story actually appearing on the ESPN.com homepage, his comments generated a fair amount of attention and predictable subsequent controversy, the majority of which was absolutely absurd.
For the record, while I agree with Lemieux's general point that the Islanders' conduct Friday night was indeed exceptionally embarrassing, I personally felt that the league's disciplinary response - Trevor Gillies' nine-game suspension, Matt Martin's four-game suspension, and the Islanders' $100,000 fine - was swift and sufficient. I do not agree that the league failed in this matter, and I too was surprised when I first read the statement from the ordinarily quiet executive.
Regardless of whether or not we agree with Lemieux's assessment of the specific penalties, however, the media's reaction to Lemieux's words has contained an array of viciously misguided assaults, and popular opinion (at least according to the majority of non-Pittsburgh blog comments and the Facebook walls of a number of my Philly, DC and New York friends, always an accurate barometer) has quickly painted Lemieux as both a whiner and a hypocrite.
Scott Burnside wrote a childishly inflammatory Lemieux piece on ESPN.com, which contains - in addition to references to Zeus, a "weighty cloak of self-righteousness," and a sarcastic "You go, Mario" (Burnside apparently wrote his piece after watching an In Living Color rerun) - some legitimate concerns about Lemieux's apparent hypocrisy:
Lemieux apparently didn't mind the state of the game so much when Matt Cooke, a player his Penguins signed to a new contract this past summer, put Marc Savard's career in jeopardy last season with a blindside check a thousand times worse than the one that recently felled Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby.
And Lemieux must have been too busy working on his short game last week to defend the game he loves when Cooke was suspended again, this time for four games, for drilling Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin headfirst into the boards.
Nope, Lemieux was pretty much silent on that one, too. Funny.
The Post-Gazette's Bob Smizik echoed the Cooke problem:
Lemieux can’t preach reform -- can’t expect to be taken seriously -- until he does something about Cooke. He could get rid of Cooke, which would be a last resort. He could first talk to Cooke and let him know what will and will not be tolerated by the Penguins.
If Cooke cleans up his act, Lemieux gains credibility. If Cooke does not clean up his act, Lemieux gains credibility when Cooke is released.
These same exact criticisms popped up last month when just-concussed Sidney Crosby dared to say the league should perhaps reevaluate its policy on headshots, and critics Internet-wide blasted Crosby for raising the issue on his own behalf after staying silent when Cooke concussed Savard the year before (because captains publicly call out their teammates all the time - Markus Naslund, for instance, still feels bad for Todd Bertuzzi).
While Lemieux ripping the NHL just a week after two separate Matt Cooke incidents may appear outwardly foolish, the recent backlash against Lemieux's statement has ignored several unarguable truths:
First, Lemieux's comments are not an endorsement, tacit or otherwise, of Matt Cooke's behavior. Lemieux's statement concentrated on the Islanders game and the Islanders game only. Whether or not you believe that his statement implicitly condones the actions of Matt Cooke, one thing the statement factually does not do is directly defend Matt Cooke's dangerous behavior, as Bruce Boudreau most certainly does on Ovechkin's behalf in the quote at the beginning of this piece.
Boudreau criticized Matt Cooke last week after he stuck out his leg and tripped Ovechkin, saying:
"[Cooke] knows damn well what he did. There's no doubt in my mind that he's good at it and he knows how to do it. He knows how to pick this stuff. We as a league, we still buy into this [idea] that, 'Oh it was an accidental thing.'"
An accidental thing, you know, like Ovechkin accidentally kneeing two dudes and accidentally slew footing another within three months of hockey.
My point is not to mock Boudreau - HBO already let him take care of that himself - but simply to beg the rhetorical question: does Boudreau's hypocritical defense of Ovechkin before criticizing Cooke change the fact that Cooke's conduct was completely unacceptable? Of course not. Cooke definitely stuck out his leg and tripped Ovechkin (and it could've been a lot worse if their knees collided), then completely cheap-shotted Fedor Tyutin later in the week. Pointing out that Boudreau once defended Ovechkin does not therefore falsify his claim that Cooke's conduct was out of line - all it does is make Boudreau's earlier statement appear funnier.
Lemieux, on the other hand, has never defended Matt Cooke's actions. If one wishes to interpret the organization's offseason decision to re-sign Cooke (a 15-goal scorer and prime component of the league's top penalty kill) or Lemieux's decision not to send an email last week saying "I criticize the actions of my own player who has already been suspended" as some implicit defense of Cooke's conduct, that seems highly inferential at best. To base an entire inflammatory column on it, as Burnside has done, complete with nonsensical references to Lemieux being a "petulant child stomping his feet" within "the posh offices at Consol Energy Center," then that to me reeks of deliberate, baseless character assault.
Speaking of borderline ad hominem attacks, allow me to return the favor and point out that Burnside has clearly had a personal vendetta against Lemieux ever since Lemieux dared to not take questions from Burnside during the '08 playoffs, then Burnside sarcastically congratulated Lemieux when he did take questions the following year. Read those two columns and ask yourself who really acted more like a petulant child.
Furthermore, if we are to establish the precedent that any team that harbors an agitator of Matt Cooke's caliber automatically has no right to speak out about league discipline, no matter how legitimate their gripe may be, then basically no franchises in the NHL ever have the right to say anything about league discipline. Smizik's point about dealing with Cooke's future conduct is well-taken, especially if the Penguins wish to clarify the obvious PR backlash this Lemieux message has opened, but that doesn't make him a hypocrite for arguing that the league should've sent a harsher message to the Islanders simply because a guy who's taken cheap shots is on his team's roster.
Friday night, the Islanders orchestrated a multifaceted revenge game on the Penguins, including a sucker punch and a concussion-inducing elbow, neither of which even involved minor-league goon Micheal Haley (144 PIM in 50 AHL games this year), who happened to be called up just in time for the Penguins game, his first-ever NHL appearance. How the existence of Matt Cooke - an individual who's taken some cheap shots throughout his career, including two last week - in any way lessens what the Islanders did or the Penguins' ability to criticize it, is beyond me.
Just to be clear, here's what Islanders GM Garth Snow had to say about Friday's game when the suspensions were announced:
"I'm very proud that our team showed restraint," he said. "That no one left the bench to create a bench-clearing brawl scenario."
Eh, he didn't re-sign Matt Cooke this offseason, so he's allowed to say it. We can only hope Whiny Lemieux convinces his team to exercise such restraint.