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Is Tampa Bay Lightning's Steve Downie still paying the price for a 2009 infraction?

Steve Downie (9) punches with Zdeno Chara in a Game 4 scrum. Chara:
No penalty. Downie: Two minutes for roughing, 10-minute misconduct.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Steve Downie (9) punches with Zdeno Chara in a Game 4 scrum. Chara: No penalty. Downie: Two minutes for roughing, 10-minute misconduct.

TAMPA — The sin, if indeed it was one, was committed more than two years ago.

A brief flash of a hockey stick striking the shin of a minor-league linesman and the perpetuation of the image of a young prospect out of control.

Steve Downie paid for the transgression that very night in 2009 when he was ejected from the game. He paid for it again when the American Hockey League notified the Norfolk Admirals that Downie was to be suspended for 20 games.

The question today is whether he is still paying for that mistake, and whether every officiating crew sees only the caricature of a stick-wielding goon.

If you have watched closely, you might suspect this to be true. Downie gets checked, shoved, slashed and tripped nightly with the Lightning, and the referee's arm never leaves his side.

When he was smashed into the boards in Game 4 of this East final with the Bruins with a penalty that could not be ignored, the officials evened it out by calling Downie for a dive. If it was a dive, then Downie is a terrific method actor, for the hit knocked him out of the game.

So is it true that Downie is still paying for a mistake made long ago?

"Yes," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said, "I think so."

And is that fair?

"I'm not going to comment whether it's fair or not. I'm not on the ice," Boucher said. "But there is still something there. There are fumes from the past.

"Sometimes I find it tough to get on him because I know he's working hard to change things. But for him, this is the reality. It's going to take time. But there are some refs out there who have been terrific, and they know he's putting in the effort to change things."

As much as any other, hockey is a sport that takes care of its own.

Deliver a perceived cheap shot in a game, and eventually there will be payback. It may not be the same evening. It may not even be the victim bringing the retribution, but somewhere down the line, all debts will be paid.

In this matter, the referees appear to be settling all family business. By jumping on every perceived infraction Downie commits, and by allowing opponents to use him as a punching bag, they are sending a clear message that you touch officials at your peril.

The party line from the Lightning's affiliate club in Norfolk in 2009 was that the slash was an accident, that Downie inadvertently hit the linesman with his follow-through on a faceoff.

You can watch a fuzzy video of the incident on YouTube and decide for yourself. But given Downie's checkered past, you can probably understand why the AHL denied Norfolk's appeal.

Because the reality is that reputations do matter, and Downie, 24, is carrying around a doozy. It's not just the slashing of the linesman. It is also the hair-trigger temper. The on-ice fights. The complaining to officials, and the perception that he is not adverse to taking a dive.

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman does not agree that officials are targeting Downie, but he admits his player rarely gets the benefit of the doubt.

"When he sticks to playing hockey and playing hard and stays focused, he's very, very effective," Yzerman said. "It's when he gets distracted and gets frustrated and gets away from playing hockey that he runs into problems.

"You scream and yell at an official over and over and over, you can't expect to have the calls go your way."

For the most part, Downie is loathe to talk about his past. And his reticence is understandable. This is a guy, after all, who was held up as the epitome of all that is wrong with hockey when he seriously injured a teammate after a fight in juniors.

His career is littered with suspensions and accusations, and nothing he can say today will undo the damage his fists have inflicted.

Downie's only hope is to change that perception by the way he plays. Aggressive but not reckless. Intense but under control.

"I think he's done a better job of controlling his emotions and his discipline, and he doesn't seem to be getting rewarded for that," said Sun Sports analyst and former Lightning wing Chris Dingman. "How do you call a diving penalty on a guy who gets his head knocked off the boards and then goes to the dressing room and doesn't return?"

It happened again Monday night in Boston in Game 5. Downie was called for boarding on a third-period hit that wasn't flagrant. Later in the period he was knocked off his feet behind the Boston net, and no call was made.

Maybe Downie has brought this on himself. And maybe further reparations will be required. But eventually the question should be asked:

How long must a man pay for his sin?

Is Tampa Bay Lightning's Steve Downie still paying the price for a 2009 infraction? 05/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 26, 2011 9:27pm]
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