The Lightning lost more than a hockey game Wednesday night in Buffalo. It lost its impact player over a controversial and serious alleged incident.
Center Chris Gratton was suspended three games by the NHL after referee Paul Stewart accused Gratton of spitting on him near the conclusion of the Lightning's 2-0 loss to the Sabres.
Gratton, who returned home to Ontario immediately after Wednesday's game for the Christmas break, was unavailable for comment, but he, with the Lightning, released a statement denying that he spat on Stewart.
Several Lightning players near Gratton and Stewart at the time said they did not see Gratton spit on Stewart and didn't learn of the allegations until well after the game. The game was televised by WTTA-38 in Tampa Bay and by the Empire Sports Network in Buffalo, but neither had a videotape of the alleged incident.
"There's nothing we can do about it," Lightning general manager and coach Jacques Demers said. "There's only the referee's word. Chris denies it, but the referee said it happened. Nobody saw it _ the linesman, other players, nobody. Nobody except Paul Stewart."
Nevertheless, Stewart's word is all that's needed to suspend Gratton under Rule 76 of the NHL rule book. Category III of the rule states, in part, "Any player who, by his actions, physically demeans an Official shall be suspended for not less than three (3) games."
Should a player attempt to injure an official, he is suspended for at least 20 games. Any player who uses physical force against an official, without intent to injure, is suspended for at least 10 games. Stewart ruled that Gratton's alleged spitting fell under the rule of "physically (demeaning) an Official."
Gratton, 23, could have been suspended for more than three games, but the league decided to give him the minimum punishment. According to the NHL rule book, no appeal of this particular rule can be made unless the suspension is longer than three games.
The incident supposedly occurred with 6.2 seconds remaining when a fight broke out between Tampa Bay's Darcy Tucker and Buffalo's Vaclav Varada. Gratton attempted to intervene but was held back by Stewart. According to Demers, Gratton was "pushed by Stewart, and then there was a verbal exchange.
"Chris denies spitting. The only thing that could have possibly happened, he said, was that as he was yelling that it's possible saliva (sprayed) out as he was talking," Demers said. "He was wearing a mouth guard and sometimes that makes it difficult to talk, but he absolutely did not spit on him. That's what Chris said and I believe him."
The incident took place near the Lightning net. Stewart then appeared to yell at Gratton as he followed Gratton across the ice to the Lightning bench. Gratton then stepped into the bench area and down the hallway into the locker room.
Gratton was given a two-minute penalty for roughing, a two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, a 10-minute misconduct penalty and a game misconduct.
The argument between Gratton and Stewart was their second exchange of the game. According to Lightning players and coaches, Stewart threatened Gratton with ejection in the first period. The reason was not known.
John D'Amico, the NHL supervisor at the game, informed Demers of Stewart's spitting claim about 30 minutes after the game. The news wasn't made available to the media until more the two hours after the game. By that time, Demers already knew Gratton would be lost for three games.
That means Gratton will miss home games against the Panthers (Saturday) and the Islanders (Tuesday) and a road game at Carolina (Wednesday). He is eligible to return Jan. 4 at Toronto.