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Mario Lemieux is right, but wrong

The Penguins owner called the events of Friday night on Long Island a "travesty." That is true; Trevor Gillies expressed his disappointment over the nine-game suspension he received, but his punch and then taunt of Eric Tangradi as the Penguins rookie tried to recover from an elbow to the head deserved a serious punishment.

But here's the thing about Lemieux's rant, which will certainly earn him as big a fine from the NHL as the Isles got for the brawls -- it's misguided. He's right that the league has to clean up such messes with serious penalties, but Lemieux, as an owner and one of the game's greats, has a bigger responsibility to his own team.

The growing problem with head shots and line-brawls and such is not that the NHL and VP of discipline Colin Campbell are failing to punish, as Lemieux insists. It's that the players don't seem to want to respect one another, and then coaches and GMs and owners don't seem to want to discipline their own players first before they go spouting off about the league and failures and travesties.

Matt Cooke is, clearly, a good teammate. His Penguins teammates and his coach have defended him at every turn, after every ugly, needless check he throws. That devalues what Lemieux has to say about the Islanders and the league; when Garth Snow tries to defend Gillies' intentions, he devalues any criticism that could be thrown around about others' conduct.

It's a heated sport and hockey thrives on its physical nature, as the cheering fans for each fight and the fighting features on the league's website can attest. I'm not calling for a fighting ban; it has its place in the game.

But, if the players want to bash each other over the head, throw hits from behind and sucker-punches and elbows, then that's their problem. Former Ranger Mathieu Schneider told The Post's Larry Brooks over the weekend that the NHLPA will be taking a harder stance against its own members who deliver such hits, which is a good step.

But unless teams do more to police their own head-hunters, there's no stopping this. Campbell and Gary Bettman are rule-enforcers, not parents. Teams keep their own house in order and this stuff will go away. If they keep lighting matches like Lemieux did, there's no end in sight.

Let's listen to rookie Matt Martin, who did not sidestep his own responsibility for instigating the first Friday brawl by throwing a punch at an unaware Max Talbot.

"I understand where the league is coming from," Martin told our Katie Strang. "If I were in the situation where I did throw a punch, that could've been very dangerous. I respect the decision they made and it won't happen again."

Finally, a voice of reason. They never seem to be found anywhere after the mayhem.

New York Sports