Niagara Gazette

December 19, 2008

SCHMITT: Cheap shots, not comments, keep NHL down

By Tim Schmitt

BUFFALO — Here’s something to chuckle about — former cheapshot craftsman Claude Lemieux thinks Sean Avery’s comments were out of line.

“That stuff doesn’t fly with me,” Lemieux said of the remarks Avery made about ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert that got him unceremoniously tossed from the Dallas locker room.

“I was never like that. I kept (it) on the ice, (did) what I had to do and I never took it outside. Never. Ever.”

This wisdom from a man who once bit the finger of Calgary’s Jim Peplinski, nearly decapitated Detroit’s Kris Draper, then turtled when Draper’s teammate, Darren McCarty, later tried to get retribution.

As you might have guessed, Lemieux made these statements to Sportsnet to stir attention during his recent comeback.

At 43, it’s good to hear he’s officially become an ambassador for the game.

But as we were reminded Friday night, the notion that there’s a code of honor in the NHL — on the ice or off — is hysterical. Lemieux’s legacy clearly lives on, whether he wants to admit his place in history or not.

During the second period of Buffalo’s 5-0 win over the visiting L.A. Kings, Patrick Kaleta sailed in and tried to lay a lick on Denis Gauthier behind the L.A. net. He missed.

Gauthier, who has long been a lightning rod of controversy while bouncing between four different franchises during his 10-year career, apparently wasn’t happy with the sentiment. He waited until Kaleta curled back toward the net, let the right glove drop off his hand, and suckerpunched the Sabres’ agitator directly in the face.

All this warranted a four-minute penalty.

During what was otherwise a pretty boring hockey game, this got me thinking — what exactly does it take to warrant a misconduct or match penalty?

Here’s what the NHL rulebook says:

“A match penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.”

We all know this is a complete farce and has been for decades. The only way a player can draw a match penalty is to maim his opponent. No broken bones, no major foul.

But seriously, what else could Gauthier have done? A two-hander to the throat?

Lindy Ruff called for a suspension after the game, and word is that Kaleta is seriously injured. Here’s hoping the NHL takes a long look at the play and reverses the call, adding a suspension to a pair of measly two-minute penalties.

As Jay Skurski wrote in Leading Off, the Sabres didn’t do much about it. Andrew Peters had words with Gauthier in the third, but that was it. Gauthier didn’t want to battle a guy with Peters’ punching ability, and with a 4-0 lead at the time, Peters didn’t want to give the Kings any hope. Wins have been too scarce at home to screw up a sure thing.

The problem, however, isn’t just the team’s response, it’s the league’s. Avery said a stupid thing. Big deal. He and Dion Phaneuf can handle it like men when they see each other. It’s the grandiose stuff of WWE, packaged on ice. We’ve all come to grips with it.

But can an 8 year old watching Friday’s game from his couch in, say, Lewiston, understand why one hockey player would smash another in the face for no reason? Kaleta is by no means a saint. He’s hit and hit and hit in his short time in the league, and has been the last guy to drop his gloves. He’s just as at fault as Gauthier in the grand scheme of things.

But what does the league, the governing body, have to say about such matters?

Avery got a six-game suspension for making an unbecoming comment.

But who knows what’ll happen to Gauthier, a repeat offender who could have seriously injured another player without so much as a warning.

Contact sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.