Tuesday, January 12, 2010

“Burrowsgate”: the latest in NHL refereeing foibles

Call it “Burrowsgate”.

Following his Vancouver Canucks’ 3-2 loss to the Nashville Predators on Monday night, Alexandre Burrows accused the game’s presiding referee, Stephane Auger, of targeting him as retribution for
“making (Auger) look bad” by feigning an injury after being run by Nashville’s Jerred Smithson on December 8.

“It was personal,” said Burrows to reporters after the game. "It started in warm-up. Before the anthem, the ref came over and said I made him look bad in Nashville on the Smithson hit and he was going to get me back tonight.

"When Smithson hit me sideways he said 'I saw the replay you had your head up and weren't really hurt and you made me look bad and I'm going to get you tonight.'

"And it cost us two points."

...and it will cost Burrows $2,500, the fine the NHL levied against him for his comments after concluding its own investigation in the matter.

The game-costing play Burrows refers to was a call late in the third period with the game tied at 2. Mere seconds after Ryan Jones was sent off for a somewhat legitimate hooking penalty, Burrows lightly pushed Joel Ward aside in attempting to go to the front of the net. Auger whistled Burrows for interference, nullifying the Vancouver power play. Twenty seconds later, linemate Henrik Sedin- who took his third penalty of the game with that play- would be whistled for a tripping foul on Ward after getting his stick caught in between Ward’s skates, setting up Shea Weber’s game-winning 4-on-3 power play goal. Despite a spirited Vancouver effort (they were the better team last night), the Canucks couldn’t fashion a game-tying goal, and with seconds to go, Burrows took his third penalty of the period (and his second diving penalty) and gave Auger a piece of his mind, resulting in Burrows’ ejection from the game.

Accusations of refereeing bias and complaints about the referee are nothing new, but what makes Burrowsgate different is that Burrows may actually have a case. Simply put, Burrowsgate is the worst display of refereeing since Graham Poll forgot how many yellow cards lead to a red in a World Cup soccer match between Croatia and Australia. There wasn’t any consistency with the calls the entire night (five penalties over two periods and six in the final frame), and some dubious calls were levied against both teams (on the Nashville side, I’m not sure how Dan Ellis gets charged with roughing after lightly brushing aside Vancouver’s noted pest Ryan Kesler, but that power play momentarily cost Nashville the lead). Burrows himself did appear to be a target in the third period, prompting Sportsnet Pacific’s John Garrett to correctly point out that “(Burrows) may have a reputation, but this isn’t the time (for Auger) to settle it, a tie game in the third period”. Equally targeted, it appeared, was Henrik Sedin, who’s normally very disciplined (just 14 penalty minutes before last night), but wound up drawing three minor penalties.

Standing out the most is that it appears that Auger made a concerted effort to swindle the Canucks out of last night’s game. I hate to go there, but I can’t help but see the confluence of events and see that conclusion. It’s obvious that Burrows received his minor because of Auger’s vendetta against him (the evidence is pretty overwhelming), and I have a hard time believing Sedin’s penalty would have been called in that situation by another referee. It was also pretty obvious that the Canucks were the better team last night- the Predators’ offence only worked in spurts, the Canucks consistently commanded the puck and the scoring chances- so Auger decided he’d punish Burrows by punishing his team. I believe it was more of a snap decision than a decision made before the game, because the penalty situation didn’t get one-sided until after the power play nullifying Burrows penalty (there was a missed call that would have gone Vancouver’s way shortly after Weber’s goal), but it does look like Auger decided he’d put the game in his own hands.

Therefore, the league’s decision to fine Burrows and do nothing to Auger is yet another example of the NHL sticking its head in the sand and refusing to address a problem. If this were an isolated incident, I’d let it go, but Burrowsgate is one in a trend of Auger’s mistakes. You may remember earlier this season Auger was involved in another game-changing call, this time in a game with the Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings. In that game, Detroit’s Dan Cleary wristed a shot past Dallas’ Alex Auld, with the puck nestled clearly behind Auld’s pads and in the net shortly afterward. It should have been a goal, and the 2-2 goal at that, but Auger waved the goal off. The play went under review but was surprisingly upheld, the ruling being that Auger had blown his whistle though he hadn’t for a full second after the puck had crossed the line. By itself it could be written off as a mistake, but Burrowsgate shows a disturbing trend about Auger’s abilities and competency as a NHL ref. Let us also not forget that Auger was the referee that assessed a ten-minute misconduct on Shane Doan for what Auger contended was a racially-based slur against the ref (a charge that the NHL later ruled was baseless)- if that and the following incidents don’t indicate a problem with Auger, what will?

I’m sounding like a broken record here, but the league has to get serious about cleaning up its officiating. It can’t continue turning a blind eye to its referee’s mistakes, and it can’t continue allowing its referees to have their own “interpretation” of the rules. Officiating has to be uniform and impartial. Obviously, referees are human and you can allow for mistakes, but incidents like Burrowsgate happen far too often to suggest that these are merely “occasional mistakes”. It points to a wider problem of rogue refereeing and a league-wide lack of standards, problems that strike at the legitimacy of hockey as a major professional sport. It’s problems like this that leads to the league’s biggest on-ice problems, and one it ought to fix- unless of course, it’s content on continuing to be what it currently is: a laughingstock.


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