L’Affaire Auger Puts NHL Integrity on Ice

published January 14, 2010

Officials in every sport are a necessary good; the human ego inside the uniform is an inevitable evil.

The latest instance of a referee or umpire who thinks the game is about him took place Monday night in Vancouver.  The story began a month ago, when Nashville’s Jerred Smithson checked Alexandre Burrows of the Canucks into the boards in the second period. Burrows was down on the ice for some time, and referee Stephane Auger gave Smithson a five-minute boarding major and a game misconduct.  Burrows got up and continued in the game, and the Canucks scored near the end of the power play.  Nashville won the game, 4-2.

The league reviewed the game video, and concluded that Burrows – an effective scorer and agitator who’s been called Sean Avery Lite – had embellished the hit and its aftermath, faking serious injury to draw the penalty.  It rescinded the major/game misconduct, and no doubt had some unpleasant words for Auger about his call.

Fast forward to Monday night.  Auger is assigned to work his first Canucks game since the incident – ironically, against Nashville again.  In the pre-game skate, Auger seeks out Burrows and has a private chat with him.  According to Burrows after the game, Auger told him, “I saw the replay [of the Smithson hit], you got your head up, you weren’t really hurt and you made me look bad so I’m going to get you back tonight.”

The game was tied at 2-2 in the third period – Burrows had both goals for Vancouver – when Auger sent Burrows to the penalty box for diving, a rare call.  Later, with five minutes to go and the Canucks just beginning a power play, Burrows was whistled for interference, again by Auger.  After a second Vancouver penalty eighteen seconds later, Nashville scored the game-winner on their own power play.

Burrows skated by the referee after the interference call, and he said later that Auger told him if he said anything, Auger would kick him out.  “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.”  Auger gave him two for unsportsmanlike conduct and a ten-minute misconduct at 19:56.

In his postgame comments, Burrows said his teammates “are battling hard for 60 minutes to win a hockey game because every two points are so huge, so important, and because of a guy’s ego it just blows everything out of proportion and they’re making bad calls and the fans are paying for it and we’re paying for it.  I think he (Auger) should sit out the rest of the year making calls like that.”

Reaction was swift, and focused mostly on Burrows:

“Seeing the player this is coming from, I’m not surprised,” said the Canadiens’ Georges Laraque.

“No one likes a tattletale,” said Calgary’s Craig Conroy.

“If you know Burrows, he’s an agitator, he’s an aggressor, he’s getting under a guy’s skin all the time,” said Barry Melrose on ESPN.  “He says a lot on the ice, off the ice, I think once he looks at that statement and he thinks about it for a while, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t retract it.”

The NHL’s director of hockey operations, Colin Campbell, announced a $2,500 fine against Burrows on Wednesday, and stated, “We have determined that Mr. Burrows’ account of Referee Auger’s comments to him before the game, and specifically Burrows’ suggestion that these comments indicated bias against the player or the Vancouver team, cannot be substantiated. While Referee Auger engaged the player in a brief conversation prior to the opening face-off, I firmly believe that nothing inappropriate was said and that Referee Auger’s intentions were beyond reproach.”

Substantiated?  How, exactly, did Campbell expect to substantiate it?  Unless Auger was stupid enough to walk in and say, “Sure, I said it – so what?” no substantiation was possible.

This is not a Tim Donaghy situation; what Auger did – if Burrows is telling the truth, which seems likely from the evidence of the game – does not compare to fixing games or gambling.  But it is much like what the NBA faced with Joey Crawford and his apparent vendetta against Tim Duncan, or Steve Javie’s alleged distaste for Allen Iverson.

Officials are human, and have feelings.  But like it or not, they’re in a subordinate role, and have no business bringing those feelings to center stage.

We see it all too often in baseball, when an umpire follows a complaining player who is returning to his dugout, then ejects him for something said in the argument the ump has prolonged.  Or when he tosses a player for gesturing where a pitch was, because that visible gesture is “showing me up.”

We need officials, referees, umpires, just like we need rules and boundary lines and foul poles.  They’re a part of the scenery or equipment, a vehicle for ensuring the game is played fairly by those who are playing it — the ones who really matter.  The players are the actors; the ref is a stage direction.  If he can’t set aside his ego, he’s in the wrong line of work.

Call ‘em as you see ‘em.  If you let anything else factor in, you’re cheating the teams, the fans, and the game itself.

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