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Madden: Refs play key role in Mario's future

Saturday, January 06, 2001

Mario Lemieux's renewed love for hockey is so obvious that it's easy to forget how much he hated the game when he retired in 1997.

The NHL had better not forget. Not if it wants Lemieux to play beyond this season.

Mario's contempt for NHL-style hockey was very evident back in '97. He loathed the clutching and grabbing, the trapping and hooking. He hated that grit (i.e., lack of talent) got more leeway than skill and, seemingly, more respect as well. He was livid that hockey's superstars couldn't display their brilliance on a nightly basis. The refereeing was horrendous. The sport was tailored for the Brian Skrudlands of the world, for the lunch-pail guys, not for the elite. Not for the Mario Lemieuxs.

So Lemieux quit.

Now he's back. Mario is thrilled to play again.

That might not last.

The referees were calling everything in October, when Lemieux first got the notion to return. Now, they're not. That was clear Wednesday when Washington's Richard Zednik hooked Lemieux near the end of the Penguins' 3-2 victory at the Mellon Arena, spinning Mario headfirst into the boards.

Referee Kerry Fraser, the Human Haircut, ignored the obvious penalty. Lemieux took a slashing call, chopping down the Capitals' Peter Bondra, then complained to Fraser after the game.

The NHL and its officials didn't protect Lemieux during the first 12 seasons of his career. There were many reasons. Lemieux wasn't a skinny little twerp like Wayne Gretzky. Lemieux wasn't English-Canadian like most of the refs. He played on a team that had a reputation for whining.

Yeah, there were plenty of reasons the NHL didn't protect Lemieux. Just no good ones.

Lemieux quit. Gretzky retired. Suddenly the NHL was fresh out of superduperstars and low on charisma. The game's national profile faded dramatically.

Lemieux has returned. The effect is tangible. His comeback game did a 1.06 rating on ESPN, double the NHL's usual number. There's still plenty of work to be done, though. A 1.0 rating is a quarter of what the WWF does on a Monday night. On a slow Monday night, actually.

The NHL needs Lemieux desperately. It had better cater to him.

Would favorable treatment for Mario give the Penguins an unfair advantage competitively? There's only one answer to that: Who cares? The NBA bent over backward to please and protect Michael Jordan. The referees called a foul if someone glanced at Jordan in an unseemly fashion. The result was six NBA titles in eight seasons for the Bulls. And an unprecedented era of popularity for the NBA.

A happy Jordan equaled a healthy NBA.

A happy Mario would mean a much healthier NHL.

The NHL, of course, always has had a mentality that's way too Canadian for its own good. It's a man's game, eh? You want the players to decide the game, not the referee, eh? Mario's a big boy, he can take care of himself, eh? Hockey isn't about talent, it's about heart, eh?

The supposed rededication to calling everything, as mentioned, is out the window. The two-referee system is a farce. One ref is usually an old-timer who refuses to make a call. The other is usually some wet-behind-the-ears busher who's afraid to make a call. Showboat referees like Fraser and bugle-beak Paul Stewart think they're the stars of the NHL show. When they ignore a penalty committed against the likes of a Lemieux, people notice. Fraser and Stewart love it when people notice.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman talks a good game. But he won't go the extra mile to create a good game.

Bettman and officiating czar Andy van Hellemond need to tell their striped-shirted minions that a penalty is a penalty is a penalty, even if the foul in question doesn't quite take the 6-foot-4 guy to the ice. A penalty is committed when progress is impeded, not just when progress is halted. The NHL needs to tell its referees, "Lemieux is our meal ticket. We'll chase you out before we chase him out again."

Mario is smiling now.

But he could have a very frustrated look on his face come spring.

I'll never forget an interview I did with Mario near the end of the 1996-97 season. I asked him if he was concerned about the future of hockey.

"I don't give a [expletive]," Lemieux fairly spat, using a rare [for him] obscenity. "When I'm done, that's it. I'm out of here. I don't care."

Circumstance made Lemieux the owner of the Penguins. His heart made him play again.

But the NHL could make him flee again. The NHL had better start giving a [expletive].

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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