In 1633 Galileo Galilei was coerced by the Inquisition into recanting a statement that, to him, seemed obvious: The earth moved around the sun. Last week Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins was fined $1,000 by NHL president John Ziegler for making a statement that, to him and almost everyone else, seemed obvious: The league's officiating stinks.
Lemieux blew up after a 6-4 road loss to the Washington Capitals on Jan. 26. That was the game in which Penguin forward Jaromir Jagr knocked referee Ron Hoggarth to his knees, one of several recent player assaults on NHL officials (SCORECARD, Feb. 10). Jagr's act was inexcusable, but it wasn't a coincidence that it occurred after the Capitals had spent much of the game tripping, holding, hooking and grabbing the swifter Penguins. According to one observer, hockey had not seen such blithe mugging since Paul Newman put the Hanson brothers on the ice for the Charlestown Chiefs in Slap Shot.
To Lemieux's disgust, Hoggarth swallowed his whistle. "It's a skating and passing game—that's what the fans want to see," Lemieux said. "The advantage is to the marginal player now. That's the way this garage league is run."
Of Hoggarth, a 20-year NHL veteran, Lemieux said, "[He] just can't keep up with us."
Lemieux was not finished: "[And] they wonder why we can't get a national TV contract." Indeed, the NHL's contract with the SportsChannel America cable network brings the league only $5.5 million in television rights fees this season, less than one third of last season's take.
Ziegler found Lemieux's statements intolerable. Lemieux is known around the NHL as a whiner, but in this case he was on target. The league's officiating is inconsistent and subjective. There are a handful of fine referees, after which the drop-off is precipitous. NHL zebras commonly turn a blind eye to infractions in the third period and overtime. St. Louis Blues star Brett Hull sniped last year, "Can you imagine an NFL referee not calling an illegal procedure just because it was in the fourth quarter? Of course not! It only happens in our league."
Isn't it better that players vent their frustration with poor officiating by openly criticizing referees than by physically abusing them? Ziegler's rime would be better spent addressing the players' complaints, rather than killing the messenger.
A minor leaguer reassesses his plan to enter politics
All the small newspaper story said was that Troy Hughes, a 21-year-old leftfielder for the Class A Macon (Ga.) Braves, was running for the Illinois state legislature. Hughes, a Republican, was challenging the incumbent Democrat, Larry Hicks, in the 107th district, located in the southern part of Illinois, near the Indiana border.