More Than Meets the Eye on Auger’s Retirement?

Look, despite the obvious temptation to go into your best munchkin falsetto and cry out in joyous celebration that "the wicked witch is dead!" – it always sucks when anybody loses their job, and their livelihood. Yes, that includes Stephane Auger.

Read past the jump for more.

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Even without Burrowsgate, Stephane Auger was not a very good NHL referee, something his lack of playoff experience can attest to, but David Shoalts’ comment that there is "More to this than meets eye" is interesting, isn’t it? For one it directly contradicts Auger’s boiler-plate statement about his retirement (via Puck Daddy): 

After 13 exciting years as an official for the National Hockey League, I have made the difficult decision to retire from this position in order to take a more active role in the growth of my three young children," said Auger. "Time away from home during their adolescent years has become more and more difficult each season. Being closer to home will enable me to help my wife, Josée, and allow me to be a more present dad."

"I would like to thank the NHL for allowing me to realize a childhood dream. The League and its officials have provided me with many fantastic memories that I will forever cherish."

Shoalts elaborates in a subsequent tweet:

Pivoting off of what Shoalts is inferring, it seems that Stephane Auger, far from retiring of his own volition, has been forced out by the NHL. When you’re a referee and your name becomes synonymous with: "having a vendetta against a particular player," I suppose you’re out of luck.

When the original incident with Alex Burrows unfolded, many in the media thought that the Canucks winger was straight up lying about it. That was despite a strong array of circumstantial evidence in Burrows’ favour. That skeptical train of thought was expressed most vocally by Ron Maclean, who authored one of the most biased and selective broadcast segments I’ve ever seen to highlight Burrows’ in-game dishonesty.

In protest the Canucks refused to grant the CBC player interviews during a Saturday night broadcast. It’s widely believed that, the now two year old segment continues to negatively colour the relationship between Hockey Night in Canada and the Canucks.

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The Incident

To go over the story again, on December 8th 2009 Stephane Auger refereed a game between the Canucks and the Predators. On one play, Jerred Smithson hit Alex Burrows from behind and Burrows, in Auger’s estimation, stayed down in an effort to draw a penalty. Auger called the penalty on Smithson and sent him to the penalty box, while Burrows hopped up as if nothing had happened. The Canucks lost the game that night, but Auger was – allegedly – still miffed by the incident, and by the fact that Burrows’ had "embarrassed him."

That brings us to January 11th 2010, a game in which Burrows scored two goals, but ultimately cost the team the game with a series of penalties late in the third period. Earlier in the third, he was penalized by Auger for diving, then, when the Canucks were granted a late power-play he was called for this interference penalty:

Objectively, I think hockey fans can agree that’s a pretty ridiculous call.

Ward and Burrows barely make any contact, and it always looked to me like Ward just slipped. Less than twenty seconds later, Auger called another weak penalty (this one on Henrik Sedin for tripping) that gave the Predators a four-on-three. They capitalized (Shea Weber scored on a slapper) and with seconds left in the game Alex Burrows freaked out, taking an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Here’s Burrows’ explanation of what transpired with seconds remaining in the game:

After my second penalty, I skated by him and he said, ‘If you say a word, I’m going to kick you out,’ so I didn’t say a word because I still thought we could come back and win the game. But with three seconds left and a faceoff outside the zone, I thought I could tell him what I thought about him.”

He was indeed assessed a game misconduct by Auger following that exchange and after the game Burrows dropped a bomb to the press – saying that Auger had told him prior to the game that he was going to "get him" as payback for what he’d pulled a month earlier by selling the Smithson hit.

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The day after the incident, and remember: Burrows’ comments were the dominant hockey story for about ten days in early 2010, Bob McKenzie offered his two cents:

If the allegations are true – and Burrows has far too much detail and at the very least a compelling case of circumstantial evidence (the video of the pre-game conversation, the diving penalty, the interference penalty and the misconduct penalty) – then the league has no choice but to discipline Auger… 

But this may also be a time when the NHLOA, Auger’s union, feels the need to bare its teeth or flex its muscles to protect one of its members.

Based on Shoalts’ tweets, it seems to me that the NHL may have found a third way of dealing with this issue: they played the long game. This is speculative, but at the time the NHL fined Burrows and didn’t discipline Stephane Auger, who continued to referee regular season games (though only one against Vancouver in the two seasons since). While the league officially supported Auger, and avoided a fight with the NHLOA, the fact that Auger never sniffed the postseason suggests an in-house stance that was certainly less than supportive…

If this is how the NHL played this situation – and again I have no reason to suspect they did beyond it making sense and Shoalts’ tweets – then they did very well. By waiting, it seems as if they were able to dismiss Auger – who has had several high-profile run-ins with a variety of players (one of his controversial penalty calls resulted in the Shane Doan racial slur issue, an incident which was even discussed in Canadian Parliament) – at a moment when it appears to be within the normal course of things, and when Auger has absolutely zero leverage.

Update: Here’s Shoalts’ take on Auger’s "retirement."

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