On Sunday night, a month after speaking out against the league's failure to protect their players, Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux watched as Pens forward Matt Cooke delivered yet another illegal hit.
Cooke landed an elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh's head, resulting in a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct. A day later, the NHL responded by suspending Cooke for the remaining 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.
While Lemieux has yet to comment publicly on Cooke's actions, this most recent offence certainly puts the Penguins owner in a difficult position. How should he react to Cooke's latest infraction and subsequent suspension?
After the Penguins and New York Islanders played a fight-filled contest in February, Lemieux openly wondered about his future involvement with the league based on the direction he felt the NHL was taking.
"The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed," the Hockey Hall of Famer said in his statement in February.
Lemieux's reaction was based on the punishment the league handed out after the game, which was a pair of suspensions and a US$100,000 fine to the Islanders.
"We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players," Lemieux said last month. "We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action."
Lemieux followed up his statement by sending a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suggesting some new forms of punishment the league could implement, inlcuding enforcing significant fines for teams that have repeat offenders on their roster. Lemieux also acknowledged that under this new system the Penguins would have been fined $600,000 for the actions of their players, including Cooke.
Cooke's most recent suspension will range from 14-17 games, which will make it the longest suspension handed out by the NHL this season.
"The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game," Penguins GM Ray Shero said in a statement on Monday. "Head shots have no place in hockey. We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."
This marks the fifth time Cooke has been suspended in his NHL career, with four of those resulting from a hit to the head or a hit from behind. That doesn't include the hit that Cooke delivered last March on Marc Savard, which caused the Boston Bruins centre to miss two months with a Grade 2 concussion.
While Shero's comments make it seem as though the Penguins are growing tired of Cooke's repeat offences, he remains under contract with Pittsburgh for the next two seasons at $1.8 million per year. Buying him out would make a bold statement that would hurt the Penguins with regards to the salary cap.
Whether Cooke is allowed to return to the ice this season will depend on whether the Penguins can make it out of the first round of the playoffs. However after taking such a strong stance against on-ice actions like Cooke's, one is left to wonder if Lemieux will continue to employ a player who continues to show such a neglect for the safety of others.