Dennis Wideman (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)
Dennis Wideman could be back on the ice as early as tonight when the Calgary Flames host the Arizona Coyotes, but the issues surrounding his 20-game suspension are still very much alive.
So 44 days and 19 games after the Dennis Wideman Affair began, we’re where most observers predicted we would be – with Wideman being hit with a 10-game suspension for abusing an official.
And nobody is particularly happy with this. The NHL, which originally mandated a 20-game suspension that was upheld in an appeal to the commissioner, said in a statement, “We strenuously disagree with the Arbitrator’s ruling and are reviewing the opinion in detail to determine what next steps may be appropriate.” That’s code for, “Don’t be surprised to see this thing end up in court.”
The NHL Players’ Association, which had defended the hit on linesman Don Henderson by saying that Wideman was concussed and, therefore, should not receive any supplementary discipline, isn’t thrilled. But it accepts the ruling and is happy Wideman will at least get back $282,258, which represents half his pay for 20 games. The Flames, who went 2-5-2 and sealed their playoff fate in the nine games Wideman would have played had he been suspended 10 games, are none too happy, either.
The ruling by James Oldham on the Wideman case opens up a few cans of worms, too many to go into detail. At one point in his ruling, Oldham says, “There is no dispute that the (Miikka Salomaki) check against the boards (prior to the hit on Henderson) produced a concussion.” Well, that’s not entirely accurate because commissioner Gary Bettman’s original rule leaves all kinds of doubt as to whether or not the league truly believes Wideman was concussed. And if he were and told the medical staff to “f--- off” when he was told to go to the Quiet Room as alleged, that brings into question the credibility and integrity of the NHL’s concussion protocol.
(Another is that Oldham revealed that the infamous text Wideman sent was not to “a teammate” as Bettman said in his ruling, but in fact to Gregory Campbell, the son of NHL vice-president Colin Campbell and the man who originally imposed the 20-game suspension. The younger Campbell, who plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets, is not, nor has ever been a teammate of Wideman. Oldham also said Wideman, Campbell and others, “exchanged messages about how the referees’ union was stirring up the matter.” That’s a little strange, no?)
This thing is not over. Not by a longshot.
Some are now questioning what the league has to gain by taking this matter further. After all, it got 19 games when it wanted 20 and the money is a pittance in the grand scheme of things. My guess is this is all about setting a precedent. The league will fight this for the same reason why it battled so hard to keep a money-losing hockey team in the desert. If it does not fight these things, then others will be emboldened to take the league on.
Because the way it stands now, a player can claim a concussion or lack of ‘situational awareness’ to explain acts of violence against officials or other players. It’s crystal clear that the arbitrator in this case goes along with that notion and there was no intent to injure. And speaking of cans of worms, that’s one the NHL would almost certainly like to see sealed shut.
In his ruling, Bettman basically tore to shreds the NHLPA’s contention that Wideman was not of sound mind because he had been concussed, with Bettman saying, “In these circumstances, the hypothesis that Mr. Wideman lacked ‘situational awareness’ strains common sense beyond the point of credibility.”
It doesn’t get much more damning than that. But in an interesting turn of events, Oldham disagreed with Bettman, saying, “Wideman did not, in my opinion, ‘deliberately strike’ Henderson,” and that, “based on the totality of the evidence presented to me, I do not think that Wideman’s behavior was animated by an intent to injure Henderson.” And in doing so, Oldham basically used the testimony of one of the NHL’s own employees against it. In his testimony, Stephen Walkom, the league’s director of officiating and a longtime official himself said, “My testimony is that (Wideman) was upset, he’s skating to the bench, and he made a mistake, and he crosschecked the linesman, and he knocked him to the ice with enough force to hurt him, even though he probably didn’t mean to hurt him.”
If the intent were there, Wideman would have been punished under Rule 40.2, which calls for a suspension of not fewer than 20 games. But Oldham, saying the intent to injure was not there, applied Rule 40.3, which calls for a 10-game suspension.
Interestingly enough, Oldham also disagreed with the notion that there was a crosscheck at all. After watching the incident frame-by-frame, Oldham came to the conclusion that Henderson was struck by, “Wideman’s right hand while holding the stick at an upward angle at approximately the one o’clock position.” Oldham determined that, “this would not appear to be a configuration that would facilitate much pushing strength,” and that it, “seems more likely that the hit (Henderson) felt (and the only hit that could have produced his concussion) was when his head hit the boards on the way down.”
Wideman is eligible to play tonight when the Flames host the Arizona Coyotes, so this is over for him in one sense. But reading between the lines, you get the sense this is still far from finished.