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McKenzie: NHL needs to be more forthcoming on Auger affair

Bob McKenzie
1/13/2010 3:47:11 PM
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So, a $2,500 fine for Alex Burrows, eh?

Even those who have pitched their tent in the middle of Camp Conspiracy cannot be surprised by that. Even if Burrows passed a polygraph, no professional league can allow players to say whatever they want and attack the league no matter how justified the player, or his followers, believe he may be. There's a right way and a wrong way to bring purported injustice to light and Burrows's delivery, in a post-game media scrum, was the wrong way. There isn't a pro league anywhere that wouldn't have fined him.

Fair enough.

So now, what of the other half of the daily double, referee Stephane Auger?

We are still awaiting some official word from the NHL on this, but we do know that Auger will be officiating tonight's Flames-Penguins game in Calgary on TSN and that the league, after having a chat with Auger and a hearing with Burrows, considers l'Affaire Burrows-Auger to be case closed.

Perhaps an NHL release will provide some insight as to why this is so and why we've all been told to move along, folks, there's nothing to see here, but then again, maybe not. Which is, of course, wildly unsatisfying to all of us who have followed this most fascinating of stories.

For me, the crux of the story is precisely what Auger said to Burrows before the game started. We have all seen the video; we know they spoke. And we are well aware of Burrows' version of what was said.

What really needs to be revealed now - either by the NHL or Auger himself - is the referee's version of what words were spoken. Only if we have that information can we judge for ourselves what's credible or not and what we should actually believe.

In the absence of that, we are left to guess and many will say the NHL is simply sweeping the bad news under the carpet, that the player gets dinged with a token fine, the referee maybe gets some private admonishment about talking to players out of school before a game and a potential conspiracy of an admittedly young century has been hushed up.

At the end of the day, absent any additional information, there are only three scenarios one can subscribe to, so what's it going to be for you? Door No. 1? No. 2? Or No. 3?

Door No. 1: Burrows is telling the truth. This will, no doubt, be the most popular choice, especially amongst Vancouver Canuck fans, and anyone else who's really frosted that there hasn't been more information forthcoming from the NHL.

There is certainly some circumstantial evidence in support of this one. We have video of Auger talking to Burrows before the game, just as Burrows said in his post-game remarks. We have the history of the two, dating at least back to the Dec. 8 game in Nashville. We have the dubious diving penalty - although quite a few objective observers concede Burrows could have and should have been called for a legitimate holding the stick penalty on that play - and a marginal if not phantom interference call that contributed to the Predators' game-winning goal, to say nothing of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and 10 minute misconduct in the waning seconds.

Not surprisingly, the conspiracy theory has taken on a life of its own. Auger has now made every bad call in the game, he's been mean to Henrik Sedin and if it rains in Vancouver, it's probably his fault, too. But the hyperbole aside, there is still a body of work here that makes you go hmmmmmm…

Door No. 2: Alex Burrows is flat out lying. Not many people will subscribe to this one, nor should they, because it's one thing for an exasperated player who was in the box on the GWG to be deflecting attention and responsibility, but it's quite another to come up with an astonishing public allegation of scandal that (see Door No. 1), at the very least, has some "facts" that are difficult to overlook.

Door No. 3: The mushy middle ground. Yes, Auger talked to Burrows before the game, but, no, he didn't specifically say he was going to "get him" and then made some really questionable call(s) that, in concert with call(s) that Auger's officiating partner made, proved to be the undoing of the Canucks in the game.

Most Vancouver fans, and many in the media who are frosted at the NHL's lack of clarity on this whole mess, will choose Door No. 1 and dismiss Nos. 2 and 3 as a flight of fancy. I can see that.

I am, however, more inclined to skip by Door No. 1 for one simple reason. I cannot fathom how an NHL referee - good, bad or indifferent - could be so stupid or bold as to pull a player aside before the game and tell the player he's going to put the screws to him and then go out and do exactly that. It is incredulous. It is beyond incredulous. It just doesn't make sense. It does not compute.

And for whatever shortcomings the NHL may have, I do not honestly believe that NHL director of officiating Terry Gregson or NHL VP Colin Campbell, who in spite of the criticisms aimed at the league, are not men of integrity. I don't like every referees' call made in the NHL and I often argue with Campbell on his decisions on supplementary discipline but I don't believe for a moment that either would willingly put a cheat back to work in order to take the path of least resistance. Gregson was in this game too long as a ref to have that little respect for the profession and Campbell was a coach and player in this league and has never forgotten what that means.

I couldn't in good conscience choose Door. No. 2 because I am simply not prepared to call Alex Burrows a liar. Maybe he's telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth or maybe it's his interpretation of what was said, but I can't conceive of a player making the whole thing up. That does not compute either.

That leaves No. 3, I suppose. So here's my guess on how things went down.

Auger pulls Burrows aside before the game and tells him in no uncertain terms that he's not happy about Burrows showing him up in the Dec. 8 game and simply leaves it at that. No threat of retribution.

I don't know what Burrows's takeaway thought on that would have been at the time the message was delivered, but I can only imagine what it was after Auger whistled him for two third-period penalties, one of which contributed significantly to the loss. I could see how Auger merely admonishing Burrows for showing him up could go from that to "I'm going to get you" after the penalties were called.

As for the penalties themselves, I can find you a whole bunch of hockey people who think Burrows deserved the first penalty, not so much for diving as holding the stick. On the second one, I didn't think it was a penalty, not many people do, so I'll say Auger made a really bad call at a crucial point in the game. It's tough to overlook that it was on Burrows, that's for sure. And perhaps this is where this reasoning will fall apart for many. But I suppose I'm more prepared to say Auger was guilty of a really bad judgment call than being into game-fixing or maliciously and brazenly doling out payback on a personal vendetta that could cost him his career and bring the game into extreme disrepute.

But that's just me.

I would feel a lot better about choosing Door No. 1 if Burrows, after Auger pulled him aside before the game, had gone to his coach and/or a teammate and said, "You won't believe what the referee just said to me." If there were any of that independent corroboration, it would be game, set and match for Auger.

If the NHL didn't ask about or pursue that angle, shame on it. But if it's an angle that doesn't exist, then I can more easily subscribe to Auger telling Burrows he didn't appreciate being shown up and then going out and simply calling a bad game.

Of course, I, and a lot of other people, would feel a lot better if the NHL were more forthcoming on the details of the investigation and what precisely was said between Auger and Burrows before the game. Because without that, we are left to guess and wonder. And on a matter that has received so much attention, potentially casting the league in such a negative light, guessing and wondering for fans and media alike just doesn't cut it.

Bob McKenzie

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