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BETTMAN DID THE RIGHT THING WITH MUCKLER

BEGINNING WITH the moment someone picks up a telephone and calls a radio station today, there will be an argument that the Buffalo Sabres don't need John Muckler as their coach.

A victory over the best team in hockey with Muckler suspended and assistant coaches Don Lever and John Tortorella calling the shots prompts that kind of talk.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

And nothing will do more to obscure the fundamental fact.

The fundamental fact is this: John Muckler deserved the three-game suspension and $10,000 fine he received Monday. He richly deserved it.

A week of carefully crafted statements, misdirected statements and "no comments" doesn't mean Muckler was lying for the sake of lying. I doubt he was trying to duck the issue just because he knew he would be facing embarrassment and a heavy fine.

I suspect more than anything else he tried to avoid the consequences of his actions for just one reason: He wanted to stay behind the bench and help his team win.

Don't misunderstand. Muckler is a proud man. Among the proudest I have ever dealt with. He also has relatively thin skin for a man who's been in hockey for decades, but the mission that dominates his life right now is winning. If staying behind the bench is a means to that end, he would do anything in his power to accomplish it.

Most anyone who knows John Muckler knows that.

But slapping a heckler, even a loud and persistent heckler, has nothing to do with winning. Which is why, public comments aside, it's unlikely he lied to team president Doug Moss about the details of what happened in that runway to the locker room last week. It's a certainty that on Monday he told the truth to National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman.

Now he's paying the price.

Good. Three games is just about right. Three games without pay makes for a responsible sting assuming the club actually deducts the money and doesn't find a "bonus" at the end of the season. The $10,000 fine is something that has to be paid and is something everyone who buys a ticket can relate to.

In the long history of this franchise, no coach, not even the volatile Rick Dudley or the ultra-intense Scott Bowman, ever struck a fan. That Muckler did brings up a slew of questions as to just how much pressure is on a man wearing two hats (coach and general manager), managing what is said to be a payroll among the top six in the league, facing criticism for some fruitless trades and questionable injury rehabilitation and on the edge of a crowded race for playoff berths.

All of that might explain why Muckler and even Tortorella did what they did, but it doesn't absolve them.

No fan deserves the treatment Vincent G. LoTempio got, no matter what he said or how he said it. More important, every fan who enters the building needs to know that it's a safe place, secure from the machinations of hostile personalities, drunken louts or tightly wound coaches.

For all the pressure on Muckler to win, hockey, for the fan, is supposed to be fun and games. It's entertainment. High-priced entertainment that must always be nonthreatening to the viewer.

Bettman knows that and did something about it.

What he did was right and just and something Muckler deserved.

No one, no matter how dedicated to winning, should ever forget that.

Especially the coach and general manager of the Buffalo Sabres.

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