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Burrows claims ref is out to get him


Andrew Bucholtz

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A bizarre subplot emerged from the Canucks' <a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/hockey/predators-turn-back-canucks/article1427877/">3-2 loss to Nashville</a> tonight, with <b>Alex Burrows</b> <a href=http://communities.canada.com/theprovince/blogs/whitetowel/archive/2010/01/12/alex-burrows-accuses-nhl-ref-of-having-a-personal-vendetta.aspx">claiming</a> [<b><a href=http://www.twitter.com/botchoncanucks">Jason Botchford</a></b>, <i>The Province</i>] referee <b>Stephane Auger</b> has a personal vendetta against him. Burrows scored both of the Canucks' goals, but was called for 16 minutes in penalties and was in the box when Nashville's winning goal was scored. At least two of the penalties were certainly debatable.

According to Botchford, Burrows said Auger told him in advance that he was in trouble. Burrows said Auger referred to the Canucks' 4-2 loss to Nashville on Dec. 8, where Auger gave Jerred Smithson a game misconduct for charging Burrows. Here's the key quotes from Botchford's piece:

<i>"It started in warm-up," Burrows said. "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.'"

"He got me on a diving call that I didn't think was diving and an interference call. I had no idea how he could call that. It changed the game. Right now, for our teammates are battling hard to win. Because of a guy's ego, it just blows everything out of proportion and the refs are making bad calls and we're paying for it."

"He comes into the game and he's going to make a call to give Nashville the advantage and I don't think that's fair for my teammates and for the fans."</i>

(I have a brief video of Burrows talking to Auger in the warmup posted in my original entry at canuckpuck.com. Thanks to <b><a href="http://twitter.com/mattlee61">Matt Lee</b></a> for the link.)

This is fascinating. Obviously, the league's going to take a look at this, and I'd guess that they'd at least find and probably suspend Burrows for making those kinds of comments about one of their officials. The question remains: what if he's telling the truth, though?

Officiating in the NHL is often questioned, but there haven't really been many legitimate suggestions of particular grudges or suspicious behaviour from referees. That hasn't been the case in all sports, though. Both <a href="http://deadspin.com/5415679/tim-donaghy-has-found-a-publisher">basketball</a> and <a href=http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,4912571,00.html">soccer</a> have recently gone through massive scandals involving referees fixing games. There's no suggestion that Auger was out to swing this game for betting reins, but Auger's actions did swing the game; Nashville scored the winning goal with Burrows in the box.

Auger's call on that play remains up for debate. There are three main scenarios that could have happened. The first is that Auger made the right call, in which case Burrows is spouting off for no good reason. The second is that Auger made a bad call, but he made it with the right intentions (i.e. he didn't have any specific motivation to get Burrows). The third is that events unfolded as described by Burrows, where that call was strictly made because of a grudge against him.

The problem is that it will be difficult to figure out exactly which scenario happened. NHL referee supervisors can differentiate between scenario one and the other two by analyzing the tape and comparing it to their rulebooks and referee manuals, but we currently don't have any way to determine motivations accurately (unless <b>Mr. Spock</b> or <b>Counselor Troi</b> want to drop in). Video does suggest that one of the refs talked to Burrows in the warmup, but it will be difficult to figure out exactly what was said; I'm sure if events unfolded as Burrows described, Auger wouldn't exactly say that loudly enough to be overheard by anyone else.

The NHL certainly should investigate this, though, and they shouldn't just flip it off with a "we stand by our refs." That can be the public statement, but they need to go deeper in private, interviewing Auger, the rest of his crew and Burrows in detail. They need to approach them skeptically, rather than from a position of faith, and perhaps even resort to lie-detector tests (this won't happen, but it would be one way to sort it out reliably). For the good of the game, fans, players and teams need to have faith that referees are approaching all situations fairly.

If Auger did this, I can empathize with him; I worked as a softball umpire for several years and know just how difficult officiating can be. There's certainly motivation to "get" certain teams or players when they treat you poorly. To my knowledge, I always resisted doing so consciously, but that doesn't mean I didn't feel tempted. I'm sure there are certain refs who dislike certain players and have that influence their calls, either subconsciously or consciously (Tim Donaghy makes many claims to that effect in his <a href="http://deadspin.com/5415679/tim-donaghy-has-found-a-publisher">book</a>). Whether Auger falls into this category or not is still uncertain, though, and if he does, telling the player that he was out to get him would be incredibly stupid.

What does this mean for the Canucks? Well, if Burrows' allegations are true, they probably lost at least one point and possibly two tonight, which could be important in the case of a tight playoff or division race. However, regardless of the truth of the allegations, Burrows' behaviour in taking them to the press could hurt the team even more. He's been one of the league's best players recently, and was <a href="http://www.nucksmisconduct.com/2010/1/11/1245527/burrows-nhl-1st-star-of-the-week">named</a> the NHL's first star for last week. He's been touted as a hot fantasy pickup by several esteemed writers, including the Fanball Network's <b><a href=http://www.twitter.com/BaseballGuys">Ray Flowers</a></b> in his <i>Sports Illustrated</i> <a href="http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/fantasy/01/11/crashing.net/index.html">piece</a> today. If Burrows is hit with any sort of suspension, that could hit the Canucks dramatically.

We'll see what comes out of this. However, I'm sure it's far from over. Burrows may have fought the law, but in the end, the law usually tends to win.

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