NEW YORK (AP) — Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux said the NHL failed in its punishment of the New York Islanders following a fight-filled game between the teams — and went so far as to question whether he wanted to stay in the league.
Lemieux, who had a Hockey Hall of Fame playing career with the Penguins, issued a statement Sunday in which he bashed the league’s handling of the aftermath of Friday night’s 9-3 Islanders victory in which there were 346 penalty minutes, 10 ejections, 15 fighting majors and 20 misconducts.
“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,” Lemieux said. “It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.”
The NHL suspended New York forwards Trevor Gillies for nine games and Matt Martin for four and hit the team with a $100,000 fine late Saturday night, saying the Islanders “must bear some responsibility for their failure to control their players.”
Lemieux, who bought the team out of bankruptcy in 1999 and ended his playing career during the 2005-06 season, said the sanctions weren’t nearly enough.
“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,” he said. “We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action.
“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.”
The NHL stood by the punishments handed out by league disciplinarian Colin Campbell.
“We are entirely comfortable with how Friday night’s events were handled,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement. “We have no other response to Mr. Lemieux’s statement.”
Pittsburgh forward Eric Godard was the only member of the Penguins’ organization to be punished by the NHL. He received an automatic 10-game suspension because he left the bench to join a fight between New York’s Micheal Haley and Penguins goalie Brent Johnson.
Pittsburgh also avoided a fine by the league. That drew the ire of Islanders general manager Garth Snow.
“When I saw the suspensions on both sides and the fines, I was a little bit surprised it was just our club that got fined,” Snow said Sunday before the Islanders played at Buffalo. “You can ask the league about it. There’s nothing we can do about it but put it behind us and get ready for Buffalo.”
Snow said he had no intention to appeal the league’s decision, but noted that no Islanders player left the bench to take part in a fight.
“I’m very proud that our team showed restraint,” Snow said. “We came to play hockey and obviously, there’s a lot of things that happen in the course of a game. I’m proud of the way our team competed, and I’m going to support my guys.”
Asked if the punishment was fair, Snow said Campbell had a tough job and he would never criticize him.
“I respect the process,” Snow said. “It was a professionally run process.”
Campbell held disciplinary hearings with three Islanders players Saturday at the team’s hotel in Buffalo. All but Zenon Konopka of that group received suspensions.
The two major brawls Friday night were sparked by Martin and Gillies.
The first broke out in the second period when Martin jumped Max Talbot from behind near center ice and started a fight, presumably in retaliation for an unpenalized hit delivered by Talbot on Feb. 2 against Islanders forward Blake Comeau, who hasn’t played since because of a concussion.
In that previous meeting, Johnson also knocked down counterpart Rick DiPietro with one punch to the face, leaving the Islanders goalie out for four to six weeks because of facial fractures.
During the third period Friday, Gillies charged after Penguins forward Eric Tangradi and hit him high with an elbow before landing several punches. From the tunnel leading to the Islanders dressing room, Gillies then taunted Tangradi once the Pittsburgh player got up on his skates. Tangradi was diagnosed with a concussion, and he sat out Sunday’s game against the New York Rangers.
Already dealing with a growing number of concussions, including one to Penguins captain Sidney Crosby that has kept him sidelined since early January, the NHL is taking serious measures to punish head contact.
“The actions by the Islanders’ Gillies and Martin were deliberate attempts to injure by delivering blows to the head of players who were unsuspecting and unable to defend themselves,” Campbell said in a statement announcing the suspensions.
“The message should be clear to all players: targeting the head of an opponent by whatever means will be dealt with by suspension.”