Commentary

Only 'failure' here is Lemieux's message

Updated: February 14, 2011, 8:54 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Goodness, Hall of Fame owner Mario Lemieux is a delicate flower, isn't he?

After hiding behind what must be a weighty cloak of self-righteousness and refusing to speak publicly for long months at a time about the game he professes to love so much -- bam! -- Lemieux emerged and dropped a bomb on the NHL's lap Sunday afternoon.

"Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. But what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn't hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that," Lemieux said in a statement released Sunday afternoon, the day after the NHL assessed a series of suspensions and fines for Friday's fight-filled debacle between the Penguins and Islanders.

"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."

Mario Lemieux
Leon Halip/US PresswireOutside of appearances at the 2009 Cup finals and 2011 Winter Classic, Mario Lemieux has rarely spoke publicaly in the past few years.

We must say, it helps to read all these bits aloud in a very deep, Zeus-like voice to get the full import of this great chiding from on high. It would all be great theater if it weren't so nauseatingly contrived.

Lemieux apparently didn't mind the state of the game so much when Matt Cooke, a player his Penguins signed to a new contract this past summer, put Marc Savard's career in jeopardy last season with a blindside check a thousand times worse than the one that recently felled Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby.

And Lemieux must have been too busy working on his short game last week to defend the game he loves when Cooke was suspended again, this time for four games, for drilling Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin headfirst into the boards.

Nope, Lemieux was pretty much silent on that one, too. Funny.

"We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players," Lemieux wrote in his first public statements since the Winter Classic. "We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action."

What actions is he talking about? Fighting? His team leads the NHL in major penalties by a wide margin. The Penguins also lead the league in penalty minutes per game. Still, sure enough, folks rushed to laud Lemieux for being brave, for telling it like it is, for standing up and laying a wallop on the NHL.

You go, Mario.

How dare the league not do what Lemieux wanted? But what exactly did Lemieux want or expect the NHL to do? We'd love to know.

Should cowardly New York Islanders forward Matt Martin have earned more than the four games he did for his sucker punch on Pittsburgh forward Maxime Talbot in Friday's game? Of course.

But Trevor Gillies received nine games for his equally cowardly elbow to Eric Tangradi. The Isles also received a $100,000 fine. Pittsburgh forward (and former Islander Eric Godard) received 10 games for coming off the bench.

You think the Islanders liked how this played out? Sources tell ESPN.com the Islanders were saying Sunday that they were the ones getting done over by the league and this was a conspiracy on the NHL's part to protect the Penguins.

So, just what else did Lemieux want or expect?

Even when you suspend cannon fodder like Martin and Gillies (they have a combined three goals this season; would anyone notice if they were banned for the rest of the year?), does it really strike at the core issue of respect?

It's not hard to see where Lemieux's outburst comes from. The Pens have lost four of five games, including Sunday's 5-3 loss to the New York Rangers. They have been without Crosby for more than a month with a concussion and there is no timetable for his return or even any guarantee he will return this season. Evgeni Malkin is gone for the season with a knee injury. Half their forward contingent has been sidelined by injury.

And so, a team that looked to be primed for another long Stanley Cup run at the end of December looks to be significantly less than that now. The 9-3 loss Friday and subsequent pounding by the Islanders were humiliating, and Lemieux is right on one count to call it a "travesty." But that wasn't the only travesty to come out of the Isles/Pens "Slap Shot" revival.

Want to have intelligent debate on the issue of violence in hockey, or what to do about head shots? We're all for it.

Want to have a meaningful debate about whether the NHL's handling of supplemental discipline deserves an overhaul? We've been saying that for ages.

Having someone like Lemieux weigh in would be a significant moment, just as it's crucial to hear from players like Crosby and Jonathan Toews and Chris Pronger and the rest of the game's leaders, especially when it comes to changing the climate of disrespect that continues to plague the league.

But this wasn't a call to action; it came off as a petulant child stomping his feet.

Lemieux threw the NHL under the bus Sunday. Not that the league doesn't need the occasional adjustment, but this is the same league that worked shoulder to shoulder with Lemieux to get him his new arena, keep his team in Pittsburgh and, oh yes, get his millions out of the team.

Even if he had decided to give the league a little goose about how it handled L'affaire Long Island, OK. If it made Lemieux feel better to vent, fair enough; he's earned some leeway, we suppose. But then, there was the threat to pick up his golden puck and go home.

"If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it," Lemieux concluded in his statement.

Gee, get over yourself.

It's more than a little rich that Lemieux is threatening to walk away from the game now that he's got a shiny new arena and presumably all the millions he was owed all those years back when he hated the game but saved the team in Pittsburgh nonetheless. Was this even Lemieux's doing, this "statement," or did it come from somewhere else in the posh offices at Consol Energy Center? Regardless, the statement has Lemieux's name attached to it and he must wear it.

We can only assume Lemieux will get a little dose of the same medicine Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi received awhile back. Lombardi mouthed off about the integrity of the NHL's hockey operations department and took a $50,000 shot in the jaw for his troubles. We're guessing Lemieux will have to answer to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, et al, with his checkbook, as he should.

Big picture? How about this: Lemieux could apologize for going over the top on this one, or he could actually become a meaningful part of the debate on how to make the game he insists he loves better.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.