PITTSBURGH - Mario Lemieux doesn't have to put on skates to make the NHL better.
He's one of the few people who can accomplish that just by talking about it.
Lemieux took the first step with his statement blasting the league for its handling of the Pittsburgh Penguins' fight-filled game against the Islanders in New York just over a week ago.
But if it ends there, Lemieux has failed his team and his sport.
Before the headlines fade away, Lemieux needs to step up and address the issue of what really is troubling the NHL.
It isn't excessive brawling; the foolishness on Long Island was an aberration.
The Penguins hadn't been involved in a mess like that since they had a bench-clearing brawl with the Edmonton Oilers at the Civic Arena on Jan. 19, 1980.
Lemieux was 14 years old, so it's been a while.
The Islanders were itching for trouble, and they imported livestock from the minor leagues specifically for that task.
Lemieux felt the punishment the NHL gave the Islanders - a nine-game suspension for Trevor Gillies, a four-game ban for Micheal Haley and a $100,000 fine for the team - wasn't enough.
But, really, what difference does it make? The Islanders are headed for the golf course the day after the season ends.
If the NHL really wanted to penalize the Islanders, it should have demanded they play Gillies and Haley at least 20 minutes per game for the rest of the season.
That may have showed them the error of their ways.
The Islanders' scripted violence was their payback for a Feb. 2 game in Pittsburgh. Max Talbot hit Blake Comeau with what the Islanders felt was a cheap shot, and goalie Brent Johnson knocked counterpart Rick DiPietro out of action for at least a month with a single punch.
Maybe the bigger issue on Johnson's KO was showing it on the video board at Consol Energy Center and the shots of Penguins players laughing on the bench.
Nobody likes to be embarrassed, not even teams at the bottom of the standings.
The issue isn't fighting, most of which is done by consent and largely confined to players who are known to have that element as part of their game.
It's no coincidence that defenseman Deryk Engelland is the Penguins player who has the most fighting majors. It's a big part of what he does, and why he's been able to stick with the Penguins so far this season.
The real issue, which Lemieux did not address, is the lack of respect players have for opponents, which results in reckless hits above the shoulders.
Remember, the NHL doesn't require teams to disclose information about injuries. Why? Because if they publicize that, there's a concern opponents will attack the injured body part.
Sidney Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 5, the result of a concussion that came from blows to the head in consecutive games.
There's no timetable for Crosby's return. He hasn't even been able to have full workouts since he left the lineup.
Marc Savard of Boston lost a big chunk of last season to a concussion after he was slammed in open ice by the Penguins' Matt Cooke.
That hit prompted the NHL to redefine rules for blows to the head.
Savard sustained another concussion this season, and now there's concern that his career may be in jeopardy.
The dangerous hits are happening every week, unlike the pointless brawling that happened on Long Island.
This is a chance for Lemieux to step up and speak out and make himself a force for meaningful change.
If Francesco Aquilini (he's the owner of the Vancouver Canucks) says these things, people yawn.
If Mario Lemieux says them, headlines are created.
Changing the culture of hockey will require a lot of big steps.
The first is Lemieux's surrendering his reclusive nature and taking the lead.
If he doesn't follow up and address the real issues, then he's just an owner complaining about a regular season game that doesn't matter.
SUBHEAD: Dirty business
The Penguins only have two home games with the Washington Capitals, and one of them wasn't even at home.
The first game in Pittsburgh was the Winter Classic, played at Heinz Field on Jan. 1.
Unseasonably warm temperatures and rain made for terrible playing conditions. There were puddles on the ice.
The other home game against Washington will be at Consol Energy Center on Monday night.
That will be better, but the conditions may be less than perfect.
While the Penguins have been on the road, the monster trucks have been appearing at Consol Energy Center.
The ice has been covered with tons of dirt.
They'll have everything cleaned up by Monday, but the ice may show the effects of being under a blanket of dirt over the weekend.
SUBHEAD: No innocent victims
Hitting is a big part of Penguins winger Mike Rupp's game.
Count him as one of the players who thinks there's a responsibility on both ends of that contact.
"I think there has to be an onus on the player getting hit as much as the player delivering the hit," Rupp said. "A player needs to realize he's in a danger zone and needs to protect himself. Until that happens, I don't think it's going to go away that much."