Alex Burrows learns a bitter truth
The Alex Burrows-Stephane Auger "payback" incident isn't new
Referees and the NHL have a long history of meting out covert justice
Without proof of Burrows' charge, the NHL did the only thing it could do
During the last couple of days, I've heard or read that the NHL is facing one of the biggest challenges to its integrity in the long history of the game. There was an allegation that the league has its own version of Tim Donaghy, the so-called rogue referee who bet on NBA games, and -- partly due to its own actions -- is living its own "worst nightmare." There have also been charges that the NHL has "stonewalled" the Alex Burrows -- Stephane Auger matter and hasn't truly investigated it because to do so would not be in the league's best interest.
All of this sound and fury came about because of Burrows' allegation that he was approached by referee Auger before Monday night's Canucks-Predators game and told that he (Burrows) had embarrassed Auger in a December game. (Burrows supposedly feigned injury after being hit by Nashville's Jerred Smithson and Auger rewarded him by giving Smithson a five-minute charging major and game misconduct that was later overturned by the league after it determined that Burrows had taken a dive.) Burrows, in what has quickly become a legendary postgame rant, charged that Auger told him there would be "payback" and proved it with a series of third-period penalties directed at Burrows -- the last two of which were questionable -- that led to Nashville's game-winning goal.
Now, it apparently matters little, or perhaps not at all, to the alarmists that Burrows has no proof of his charge, or that he made it without any teammates, opponents or other on-ice officials having heard Auger issue his threat. Neither Burrows nor the Canucks could provide a single bit of evidence via video or audio despite the fact that the game was taped and televised. And Burrows apparently did not tell his coaches before the game that Auger was out to get him. He simply made his remarks with passion in the heat of a postgame environment where he was a focal point of a loss. The NHL, the Canucks, their fans and the hockey public at large were supposed to believe him.
Is it possible that Auger could have done what Burrows alleges?
In a word: Yes.
It's also possible that O.J. Simpson really did cut his hand on a water glass, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco never really punctured each other's butts with hypodermic needles, and Mike Leach really was looking out for the health and best interests of Adam James at Texas Tech.
Because in all of the above cases, there is no definitive proof to the contrary.
Now, I'm going to insert a reality check here and point out that almost everyone in hockey believes that NHL referees, and even the NHL itself, are not above singling out a bad boy for special treatment every now and then. I could make a case that back in the days of the one-referee system, it went on all the time as officials exerted their control over players and sometimes teams just to let them know they wouldn't stand for any one-upmanship or allow the kind of play that gave one team an advantage via brute physical force. The best referees the game has ever known, referees who are firmly and rightly ensconced in the Hockey Hall of Fame, did it on a regular basis.
The idea was to show that the refs were in control and demanding a clean game determined by performances that held to the rules of the day. In that era, the refs usually got what they wanted. And it still happens today. If you don't believe it, ask Sean Avery or his New York Rangers coach John Tortorella.
I could argue (largely because a well-placed NHL source told me it would happen) that Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff paid a price for both his public argument that Brett Hull's Stanley Cup-winning "foot-in-the-crease" goal in 1999 shouldn't have counted and his subsequent snub of Commissioner Gary Bettman when Ruff refused -- in a very public way-- to shake his hand at the draft the following summer. I witnessed both of those events first-hand from very close range and I later saw things that made me believe that Ruff was indeed being singled out.
Only one problem: I could never prove it.
There are ways for officials to make their point just as there are countless ways for a player to show up officials via the media, internet, video and the like. But put all that aside for a moment and ask this very basic question:
What exactly was the NHL supposed to do with Burrows and Auger?
There is a much-ballyhooed six-second tape advanced by a Canadian television network that shows Burrows could be in a pregame conversation with Auger, but that tape has no audio and one could argue that Auger was doing anything from talking to the player (not exactly an unheard-of event in any league) to simply putting his hand on the small of his back while attempting to avoid a collision during the pregame warm-up.
It's that inconclusive.
So what's next?
Were officiating director Terry Gregson or hockey operations boss Colin Campbell supposed to take Burrows at his word in what amounts to a he said-he said case? Were they supposed to suspend an official who likely denied everything Burrows said and might have even argued that Burrows was attempting to deflect criticism from his own actions that arguably cost his team a win?
In the end, the NHL did the only thing it could do. It fined Burrows $2,500 for criticizing an official (a detrimental conduct rule that is in the books and an infraction that Burrows clearly committed) after finding no evidence to fine or take action against the referee.
Was justice served?
Can I prove it?
Memo to Alex Burrows: Sometimes it's just better to learn from bitter experience, shut up and play.
It may not be fair, but it does wonders for your sanity and your wallet.
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