Mario Lemieux and Don Cherry: What Is This Really About

James Hardie@@jrhardieContributor IFebruary 21, 2011

Penguins owner Mario Lemieux is apparently outraged
Penguins owner Mario Lemieux is apparently outragedJamie Squire/Getty Images

Mario Lemieux, former player and now owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is not sure he wants to be associated with the NHL anymore.

Don Cherry, an extremely popular and well-known media personality, seems ready to say "good riddance Mario, don’t let the door hit you one the way out."

The NHL probably does not want to acknowledge either of them.

I want to acknowledge all of them, in detail, and unfortunately (to those looking for a quick read) at great length.

This most recent controversy came as the result of a game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. A game that got completely out of hand and whose result was more a sideshow than a hockey game. Mario got that part right but not much else unfortunately.

But this argument did not start with this recent game, it started years and even decades ago to when Mario played in the NHL himself.

Mario Lemieux was a big star in the NHL, albeit one who (in the eyes of the more neutral, non-pro-Lemieux hockey fans) sometimes came off as a little bitter to the reality that, despite his amazing achievements, he was never given the same respect as his peer Wayne Gretzky.

Perhaps in Lemieux’s mind, he saw himself as the best player ever to skate in the NHL (that is certainly the opinion of most of his fans) and was dissatisfied that he was not even given universal support as the best player of his generation. Regardless, the result was that this latest outburst was not the first criticism Lemieux has launched at the NHL.

When looking at the career of Mario’s peer Wayne Gretzky, one of the realities is a player almost none of the newer generation of hockey knows, a man by the name of Dave Semenko. For those who do not know who Semenko was, he was (in the opinion of non-Edmonton and non-Gretzky fans) one of the biggest and least-talented goons to ever disguise themselves as NHL hockey players. The kind of guy that you see scattered across the “fourth forward lines” of NHL teams. A guy who won a spot in an NHL with only 21 teams, playing a lot of ice time beside what can only be considered “first forward line” talent of the highest calibre—Wayne Gretzky and his Hall of Fame winger Jari Kurri.

How did this happen? WHY did this happen? Well, in short, because Glen Sather (then calling shots for Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers) decided that his superstar player needed a bodyguard.

For what it is worth, even when Greztky got traded to Los Angeles, he had another heavyweight goon (Marty McSorley by name) playing beside him.

Many fans will point out (speaking for Lemieux or against him) that Mario never had anyone like that riding shotgun for him. As a result, Mario Lemieux probably dealt with the same cheap shots that all other NHL stars not-named-Gretzky had to deal with—all the while, looking enviously over at his peer Wayne, who had this leg up over him.

So now, we fast forward into the modern NHL.

The controversial introduction of the instigator penalty has limited (in theory) the role of the enforcer goons in the NHL. Perhaps the league felt that since it was struggling in popularity behind the other major sports leagues in the United States (MLB, NFL, NBA) that it had to take steps to change its appearance to satisfy the American audience—to be more about the game and less about the sideshow.

The league has attempted to find ways to reduce injuries, the most recent target being the concussion. Concussions have been a huge issue, and yet strangely, one which big business sports have tried to avoid discussing. Retired boxers and NFL players have been notorious for their health problems after retirement, almost always concussion-related. But the NHL has attempted to confront the issue head-on and in public—almost certainly in an attempt to show the American public how serious they are about preserving the sport and eliminating the sideshow.

The argument has been made by some (most prominently and loudly by Don Cherry, which is not saying much since everything about Don is loud) that the recent awareness of the concussion issue in the NHL is a direct result of the instigator rule. Even going so far as to claim that such problems were predicted by some hockey experts when talk of introducing the instigator rule was first proposed.

This is where the criticism on the NHL starts to come into play.

While there will always be extremists on all sides of any issue, the reality (which is often overlooked) is that an instigator rule is put in place because players felt the NHL was not going to properly police, protect and defend players on the ice.

For those who ask why the NHL should be responsible, since it is players causing the issue, remember that the league and product is owned by the NHL. If they want the power and authority to dictate all aspects of their game product, they need to take responsibility for both the good and the bad—that is how the world works.

For those who suggest that the NHL cannot really control players, I disagree. The league has the power to ban a player for life if they so choose. That player can go play in the KHL or elsewhere in Europe or even the ECHL if they want, or go flip hamburgers in a fast food restaurant for all the NHL should care. This probably sounds extreme, but in the end, it means you can control anything you want to. If you really want to that is.

Why is this instigator debate relevant? Because regardless of if you agree with it or disagree with it, you only need to know that there are players and coaches who believe in it.

Enter the New York Islanders.

There are players on the New York Islanders, at least one in Zenon Konopka but probably more, who believe that the instigator rule has been bad for the NHL. In particular, they felt that the Pittsburgh Penguins were a team taking advantage of this. Right or wrong, they felt that Matt Cooke was trying to injure their goalie, Rick DiPietro by constantly trying to run him over. That is, until Rick got so angry with him, that he ended up getting his face broken when picking a fight with Penguins goalie Brent Johnson.

After all, Matt Cooke is most famous for being a hockey player that tries to find where the literal line of the rules are, not the spirit—and then exploits those literal lines in an attempt to injure other players. This is not a statement of fact, for those who wish to debate it, it is simply a very popular belief in the hockey community—a belief that is likely very popular to players on the New York Islanders or players on the Boston Bruins for that matter. I doubt it stops there either.

Eerily similar to the voiced opinion of Mario Lemieux, the New York Islanders obviously felt that the NHL was simply not going to administer justice. The NHL was not interested in defending the players of a franchise that has (with all apologies to fans of the Islanders, but this is how many others view the franchise) become a perennial loser and the butt of many jokes. Ignoring the consequences, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

The Islanders did not step over the line, they ran over it. They went out with every intention of injuring a Pittsburgh team that was already savaged by injuries—and they accomplished just that. In a not-so-subtle way, they clearly said to the Penguins “If you think it is okay for your players to constantly break the spirit of the rules in the NHL, we will break the letter of the law in the name of that same spirit you embrace, and then you can tell us if you think this is how our game should be.”

Well, Mario Lemieux responded to that question immediately.

And he does not like it one bit.

In fact, he hates it so much and feels that the NHL does not hate it enough, that he made a public statement about perhaps not wanting to be associated with such an organization.

Or so he would have you believe.

If you want my opinion on that, it sort of goes like this. It is politics and not a shred of honesty. Lemieux wants the league to stop these sorts of things if it happens to the Penguins. He wants to defend his Penguins from the league when another franchise complains about what one of his players does to them.

After all, his own superstar in Sidney Crosby is out with a concussion, and nobody knows when he is ever going to come back. An injury that did not look serious, or even like an injury, has now become a long-term concern for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Lemieux wants to get that same leg up over the rest of the NHL now as a team owner that his peer Gretzky seemed to get over Lemieux when he was a player.

If Lemieux really cared about the NHL game in the manner he is proclaiming now, Matt Cooke would not have been subject only to NHL suspensions. He would have been suspended by the Penguins for additional games or traded off the team entirely. Or even if you want to give him the benefit of doubt, he would have acknowledged that perhaps his own team had developed a bad reputation.

The Penguins have the most penalty minutes in the NHL, aside from the New York Islanders themselves, it is not even close. Currently, well over 1,100 minutes in penalties this year, by comparison the third ranking Anaheim Mighty Ducks sit at less than 900 and the lowest ranked Florida Panthers are less than 500.

What does that mean?

It means that Pittsburgh takes a LOT of penalties, and they are not all accidental tripping minors.

Sometimes, what goes around, comes around. And sometimes Karma sucks.

On the extremely popular Hockey Night in Canada, the loud, abrasive and hated-by-many/loved-by-many Don Cherry chimed in with his thoughts. He called Lemieux a hypocrite.

In the eyes of many, a pot calling the kettle black. Don has been known for embracing and promoting many of the more violent aspects of hockey, while at the same time loudly proclaiming that all he wants is a safer game. So, as such, it is easy for many to dismiss any comments by such an individual.

But then, a stopped clock is still right twice a day.

Just because Don Cherry might (or might not, depending on your view of him) be criticizing Mario Lemieux for the wrong reasons, or even that Don himself is seen as inconsistent in his own beliefs, that does not mean the criticism itself is actually wrong.

So, in a battle between the NHL, Mario Lemieux, Don Cherry and the New York Islanders, who is right and who is wrong?


Just so long as you ignore the "right" part of things.

The NHL does not need to create an instigator penalty or a blind-side hit penalty, nor do they need to be all tender-hearted and be so nice and respectful to the worries of every NHL team. When you have a repeat offender like Matt Cooke whom you attempt to create rules to control before he finds another way to break them in spirit, you have to know you are doing the wrong thing.

Don’t suspend him. Kick him out of the league.

Give Pittsburgh the money to pay off the balance of his contract. Give them a compensatory draft pick at the end of the second or third round of the upcoming entry draft (whatever is fair value for the player). And tell the player, “This is a privately owned league, and you are no longer welcome to play in it.”

Mario Lemieux, as a self-proclaimed educated NHL owner, should have expected this kind of reaction. And if he did not like the prospect, he should have cleaned up the act of his own team before this kind of result occurred. Even if he was really that clueless, he should have been a man and admitted his own contributions to the problems. And make no mistake, when you own any company, even a hockey team, you ultimately take responsibility for everything that your team does—that is how the real world works. Just ask Toyota.

Don Cherry is a member of the media, and thus is as uncontrollable by the NHL as I am—which is to say that unless he crosses some fairly extreme lines, he has the freedom of speech to give his opinion on anything and everything. But, he is not doing himself any favours by heating up a debate in the game that pays for his living by taking only one side of an issue that has so many wrongs deeply embedded into it.

As for the New York Islanders, they will unfortunately likely learn the hard way that vigilante justice is not going to resolve their problems. There will be some player in the Pittsburgh organization, likely labelled a goon by Islanders fans, who will get called up for a shot in the NHL in a game against the Islanders in the not-too-distant future. Then John Tavares will be trying to heal from a broken ankle or a concussed head while this fringe player tries to win a big-league job and pay-cheque by becoming a local hero. The result will be that by trying to protest violence with violence you will only result in more violence.

You want a solution that will work? Give the Penguins a win by default. When Matt Cooke takes a run at your goalie or Max Talbot tries to knock out one of your skaters dead cold by throwing a hit that they can’t prepare themselves for. You tell the referees to either throw Penguin players and/or coaches out of the game, or you walk off the ice. You then tell the media that you are not going to risk the health of your players by putting them on the ice against such reckless, dangerous players such as the Penguins employ. Let the NHL fine you, or perhaps better yet, threaten to sue the NHL for refusing to provide a safe work environment. There would be enough video evidence after all.

It will take a huge dose of humility by any or all of the participants to help resolve this, and quite frankly, I will be shocked that happens. The primary authority, and thus the only true solution, will have to come from the NHL. If the NHL refuses to use their authority on the matter, and if NHL franchises want to see that authority used, they need to make a bold stand. This means cleaning up your own act, getting rid of your own undesirables and forcing the hand of the NHL in the public eye if it gets down to that.

The media themselves play a large role. If they want to get money for covering the NHL, they need to sometimes take a short-term pay-cut and stop polarizing the issue to get cheap thrills and take a long-term pay-raise by putting pressure on the NHL to find a better solution before the public takes their money elsewhere.

There are a lot of fans who love the NHL game, and I believe there are a lot of other people out there who would love it if they could get past the school-yard politics being passed around. This article is my way of trying to do my part, because it does not look like any of these guys are going to do the right thing on their own.


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