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MUCKLER'S PROBLEM GOES MILD TO WILD

THE LONG (figuratively speaking) arm of Gary Bettman is reaching out for John Muckler.

Just when he thought it was safe to put last week's altercation between himself and a fan behind him, The Buffalo News has learned the commissioner of the National Hockey League has requested his presence Monday in New York.

It is an offer he cannot refuse.

"He's been 'invited' to meet with the commissioner," said a source with knowledge of the 'invitation.' "It's a command performance."

At issue is Muckler's confrontation with assistant district attorney Vincent G. LoTempio at the conclusion of Sunday's 6-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Muckler has been sketchy about the details but is on record as saying LoTempio called him "a disgrace to the city of Buffalo" and in retaliation, he (Muckler) "shoved him."

However, there are other versions and more than one eyewitness has told investigators from the NHL that Muckler summoned LoTempio to the railing near where the coaches and players exit the ice and once there he slapped LoTempio across the face.

Muckler, in an interview earlier this week, denied those allegations.

That the league continued its investigation days after Muckler stated he did not expect to hear from it would indicate it is giving some credence to the allegations that have been popping up quietly around Western New York all week.

The one that seems most troublesome to the league (and therefore to Muckler and the Sabres) maintains LoTempio didn't approach Muckler but merely chastised the coach for the fact that the Sabres had a two-man advantage for two minutes in the game and "didn't get a shot on goal." Muckler is said then to have stopped, called LoTempio to him and when he approached, Muckler reached up and slapped him. He then continued toward the locker room, while assistant coach John Tortorella is said to have grabbed LoTempio and attempted to pull him over the railing. At that point, security intervened.

LoTempio has not commented on the incident and his boss, district attorney Kevin Dillon, foolishly tried to sweep the issue aside.

That's a big mistake for an officer of the court charged with determining truth, but a matter for another time.

Muckler's problem now has gone from mild to wild. If the league finds that he initiated contact, he faces suspension and a fine. Timing complicates the matter. The league Thursday had a similar incident in Dallas where fans threw beer on players on the bench, and the players attempted to retaliate by climbing into the stands.

The league can't possibly fine players for their actions if it overlooks an indiscretion by a coach.

No matter what the eventual findings, Muckler is a good head coach and Tortorella has the potential to be one. But Muckler's reported conduct was reprehensible and Tortorella's worse. Fans aren't just fans, they are paying customers, stockholders in the franchise if you will.

This is a franchise attempting to win the public trust and put up a new building in the process. It has a history of not being honest with its fans. It has a problem explaining why public funds should be used to house a private enterprise. It doesn't need a coach fending off allegations of assault against the very people who pay to keep the franchise in existence.

Team president Doug Moss knows that and should have done something about it. The same can be said for Dillon. Instead, if falls to Bettman.

Hopefully, he'll do things right.

He's the last man free to get to the truth.

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