This Alexandre Burrows-Stephane Auger situation is going to get messy. It's the proverbial can of worms for everyone involved – the league, the NHL Officials' association, referee Auger, player Burrows and the entire Vancouver Canucks' organization – and it's a story that is not likely to go away any time soon.
If the events of last night unfolded as Burrows has alleged – and there is plenty of evidence, circumstantial and otherwise – to suggest they did more or less, then the NHL will have no choice but to take some form of disciplinary action against Auger, be it a reprimand, a fine, a suspension or an evaluation that could go into his file and cost him playoff games and/or money along the line or maybe even his job.
And the NHLOA, the refs' and linesmen's union, will no doubt have no choice but to do everything possible to protect Auger, who by the way was the official who assessed Shane Doan a 10-minute misconduct that led to a major brouhaha over whether player uttered a cultural slur.
So you see where this is headed, eh? Nowhere good.
For those who may have missed it, here's the long story-short version of what went down:
In a Dec. 8 game between Vancouver and Nashville, Predator player Jerred Smithson was assessed a five-minute charging major and a game misconduct by Auger for a hit on Burrows. Nashville won the game 4-2, but in the aftermath of the game, the NHL rescinded the major/game misconduct against Smithson because the video evidence strongly suggested Burrows embellished the hit and faked an injury.
Fast forward to last night's game between the same two teams in Vancouver.
Burrows alleges that Auger came up to him in warm-up, before the anthem, and there is video showing the two having a conversation.
''A ref came over to me and he said I made him look bad in Nashville on the Smithson hit and he said he was going to get me back tonight,'' Burrows said after the game.
Auger called a diving penalty on Burrows early in the third period and then called him for an interference penalty in the last five minutes of the third period. Shortly after that, Canuck forward Henrik Sedin was assessed a tripping minor and the Predators scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal in the third period. In the final seconds of the game, Burrows received a 10-minute misconduct from Auger for telling the ref what he thought of him. Burrows, by the way, scored both Canuck goals and came close to getting a third hat trick in four games.
After the game, a distraught Burrows fired both barrels at Auger.
''He got me on the diving call, I didn't think I was diving,'' Burrows said. ''He got me on an interference call that I had no idea how he could call that. It changed the game. It sucks right now for teammates who are battling for 60 minutes to win a hockey game because every two points are so huge, are so important. And because of a guy's ego, it just blows everything out of proportion and the refs – they're making bad calls and the fans are paying for it and we're paying for it.
''He comes into the game and he knows he going to make a call against me to give Nashville an advantage and I don't think that's fair for my teammates and the fans. After my second penalty, I skated by him and he said, ‘If you say a word, I'm going to kick you out,' so I didn't say a word because I still thought we could come back and win the game. But with three seconds left and a faceoff outside the zone, I thought I could tell him what I thought about him.''
Asked what he said to Auger to get the misconduct, Burrows said: “That's it's stupid, that he takes it personally against guys he shouldn't be doing that…I think he should stay out for the rest of the year making calls like that, that are making us look bad. Every two points are so important in this league. We just blew two points because of his officiating tonight.”
When Burrows was asked how this “personal” thing originated, he replied:
''When Smithson hit me from sideways and (Auger) said, ‘I saw the replay, you had your head up, you weren't really hurt and you made me look bad so I'm going to get you back tonight' and he did, and he cost us two points.''
If the allegations are true – and Burrows has far too much detail and at the very least a compelling case of circumstantial evidence (the video of the pre-game conversation, the diving penalty, the interference penalty and the misconduct penalty) – then the league has no choice but to discipline Auger. In the wake of the Tim Donaghy scandal, the NBA referee who was part of a game-fixing scandal, the NHL has no choice but to ultra-sensitive to allegations that one of its officials may have, wittingly or unwittingly, affected the outcome of a game to send a message to a player who showed up that referee in a previous game.
We will, of course, have to get Auger's account of what did or didn't happen between him and Burrows, but the optics at this point are not great for the ref or the NHL.
Burrows could also conceivably get dinged in the way of a fine for his post-game comments, although if he's telling the truth, what exactly did he do wrong?
Here's my take on it:
While there is bound to be great outrage in Vancouver and from the Canucks' organization, the biggest mistake seemingly made was if Auger verbally suggested anything, including retribution, to Burrows.
If Auger was going to put the screws to Burrows, he should have just done it. And done it in such a way that the entire game didn't get turned upside down. One and done. Score evened. No words would need to be spoken. Everyone would start with a clean slate after that and it would not be the focal point of the game or the reason why one team won and the other lost.
I know that view will outrage many and there will be talk about how officials should be above that and the integrity of the game and all.
But the NHL has, to some extent, always been a self-policing league. It happens on the ice between players and it happens on the ice between refs and players and it always has and likely always will, to varying degrees.
Is it conceivable that Auger was embarrassed and maybe even criticized for assessing a major penalty against Smithson on Dec. 8 because of Burrows' acting job? Referees are only human. If a player makes a monkey of a referee, there is going to be a price to be paid. It could come in the form of that player not getting a call when fouled or maybe getting whistled himself on a marginal call. Or both. And as long as the game of hockey has been played, there's been a give and take between the players and officials that goes beyond the “official” channels.
In the 2002 Olympics, for example, a player had an on-ice run-in with an NHL official in Salt Lake City. In the first NHL regular season game involving that player and that referee after the Olympics, the ref called two minors and a misconduct on the player. The player gave the surrender sign, apologized to the ref and that was the end of it. That sort of thing happens more than we know. In a perfect world, it doesn't. In a perfect world, the players never show up the refs and if they do, the refs ignore it and never let it affect them because they are totally impartial and above any human feelings of revenge. That's in a perfect world.
Now, there is a lot to admire about Burrows as a hockey player. He's a self-made man, a player who was never drafted. He worked his way up from the East Coast Hockey League to be quite a good player. At one point last season, I ruffled a few feathers when I suggested he was the Canucks' MVP. Everything he has, he has earned although that probably includes the perception and reputation of being Sean Avery Lite, a motor mouth who instigates and antagonizes and acts to get every edge he can get.
But Burrows needs to understand that if he's going to do something – embellish a hit and/or fake injury to draw a major penalty – that ultimately embarrasses the ref, there's going to be payback at some point. That's hockey. And while the Canucks can be outraged, and rightfully so at how last night's game went down, it wouldn't be a bad idea for someone from management or another veteran player on the team to take Burrows aside and explain that refs are only human and if you rub their nose in it, you're going to get it back.
The league tried to deal with the broad issue of embellishment and fakery awhile back, but it was one of the biggest messes it has ever had. The league tried fining players for diving/embellishing/faking and the NHL Players' Association was up in arms over that. Then the league started making the names public of guilty parties and that didn't go over too well. Now, outside of the odd phone call/warning/reprimand that goes on behind the scenes, there's not an awful lot the league can do to combat it.
I understand a referee should be above evening the score or settling personal vendettas, but the reality is it happens. That doesn't necessarily make it acceptable, but it does make it understandable and if a ref is going to be in the message-sending business, he better have a deft touch because it is the equivalent of Black Ops work. That is, get the job done without anyone but the target realizing it and it's generally accepted. But if Auger, in fact, told Burrows of his intent to even the score last night, it will go down as one of the most ham-handed efforts ever. And the fact that the entire game swung on the second Burrows' penalty only makes it worse and takes this beyond the realm of garden-variety referee payback.
Bottom line, if the Burrows-Auger situation went down exactly as Burrows outlined it last night, the league has no choice but to discipline Auger. Many fans and media are calling for Auger's dismissal and unless the referee can provide some compelling evidence to the contrary, one would have to think that's a viable option for the league. Because while many refs have been known to send a message to a player or a coach or a team, heaven help them if they get caught with a smoking gun.
But this may also be a time when the NHLOA, Auger's union, feels the need to bare its teeth or flex its muscles to protect one of its members.
And if Burrows and the Canucks think they will ever come out ahead on this one – if they intend to play the “victim” card with gusto – there may be the potential for a lot of really ticked off NHL referees who don't like seeing one of their brothers hung out to dry for trying to teach a player a lesson about what happens in the old school when you embarrass or humiliate an NHL referee. Which is kind of where we came in on all of this.
And that, like I said, is a real can of worms for everyone.