An independent arbitrator has reduced the suspension of Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman from 20 games to 10 games.
On Jan. 27, Wideman hit linesman Don Henderson while skating back to the Calgary bench and was eventually suspended 20 games by NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell. Henderson suffered a concussion on the play and has not officiated since.
Wideman has sat 19 games during a lengthy appeal process that involved commissioner Gary Bettman and then the neutral arbitrator.
Below is the crux of the decision by arbitrator James Oldham, saying that he believed Wideman should have been suspended, but 20 games was too harsh. Oldham noted that the play fell into Rule 40.3, in which a player is suspended 10 games where physical force is applied to an official “without intent to injure.”
Rule 40.2 involves intent to injure, which is what the league cited.
The Commissioner’s basic conclusion -- that Wideman’s on-ice behavior resulting in Linesman Henderson’s concussion constituted physical abuse of an official calling for Supplemental Discipline for on-ice conduct -- was correct. Also, the Commissioner’s use of League Rule 40 (“Physical Abuse of Officials”) as a framework for analysis was appropriate. The Commissioner’s conclusion, however, that Wideman’s behavior constituted intentional action within the meaning of Rule 40.2, automatically triggering a penalty of not less than twenty games, is not endorsed in this appeal because, in my opinion, that conclusion is not substantially supported by the totality of the evidence presented to me at the NDA hearing. In my judgment, the proper penalty should have been that specified in League Rule 40.3. Taking into account Wideman’s eleven years of discipline-free performance as a professional hockey player, there is no occasion to go beyond the ten game minimum specified in Rule 40.3. Dennis Wideman’s penalty, therefore, should be reduced from twenty games to ten games, and it is so ordered.
Even though Wideman sat almost the entire length of the suspension, he will see the forfeited salary from his suspension reduced to $282,258 from the initial amount of $564,516, according to General Fanager.
The NHL said it disagreed with the ruling and would look at further action moving forward, even though Wideman is allowed to play again.
“We are in receipt of Arbitrator James Oldham’s Opinion in the appeal of Dennis Wideman’s supplementary discipline suspension and reducing the suspension from 20 to 10 games. We strenuously disagree with the Arbitrator’s ruling and are reviewing the Opinion in detail to determine what next steps may be appropriate,” the league said in a statement. “We will have no further comment until we have completed our review. In light of and in response to Arbitrator Oldham’s Opinion, Mr. Wideman will be reinstated and will be eligible to participate in his team’s games, effective immediately.”
The NHLPA gave an approval of the decision.
"Given that it was undisputed that Dennis suffered a concussion mere seconds prior to his collision with linesman Don Henderson, we felt strongly that there should have been no discipline," the PA said in a statement. "Nonetheless we are pleased that Arbitrator Oldham found that the collision was not intentional and that the suspension was reduced to 10 games. We respect the process and the decision and we look forward to Dennis returning to the ice tonight with his teammates."
Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos said the NHL may look into an appeals process in federal court.
The appeal with the neutral arbitrator was heard Feb. 25 and Feb. 26 in New York. On Feb. 19, Bettman announced the 20 games had been upheld after he heard arguments from the NHLPA. Testimony was provided by Wideman, NHLPA exec Mathieu Schneider, Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving, NHL vice-president and director of officiating Stephen Walkom, Henderson and Dr. Ian Auld, lead physician for the Flames.
Oldham noted new testimony from Walkom, showing that there may not have been intent to injure from Wideman.
“My opinion on the question of intent is supported by an important piece of new evidence, in the testimony of Stephen Walkom, the NFL’s Senior Vice President and Director of Officiating. Mr. Walkom summarized his testimony as follows:
“My testimony is that he [Wideman] was upset, he’s skating to the bench, and he made a mistake, and he cross-checked the Linesman, and he knocked him to the ice with enough force to hurt him, even though he probably didn’t intentionally mean to hurt him.”
Henderson said he felt like he “got hit by a bus” on the play.
There have been questions as to why the process took so long, since Wideman effectively sat out the length of the suspension.
According to TSN’s Frank Seravalli, the NHLPA requested to allow Wideman to play while the appeal was being decided. The NHL declined. Oldham had another case, which led to the lengthy timeframe for the decision and why the NHLPA made the request.
During the World Cup of Hockey press conference in Toronto last week, NHLPA executive director Don Fehr explained why the process took so long.
"It takes time. It takes logistics. It takes bringing an arbitrator in. If you go past the commissioner's judgment, you have to set up the hearings, and there's a post-hearing process to get the case finally submitted,” Fehr said. “So I hate to say it this way, but doing it right most of the time is more important than doing it fast. We'll wait and see what the arbitrator does, and then if there are any issues which come out of the process side of the case that we want to discuss, we'll have those discussions, but it's premature now, I think, to raise those questions.”
Said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly: “It’s what the system contemplates.”
Added Daly, “I would say that the National Hockey League, on both levels of the appeal, offered earlier dates than what the Players' Association was willing to take. It’s not to disparage anybody.”
Despite the arbitrator’s ruling, there are still some unresolved issues moving forward with Wideman.
The NHLPA argued Wideman hit Henderson because Wideman wasn’t aware of his surroundings due to a concussion suffered on a hit moments earlier by Nashville Predators forward Miikka Salomaki. The Flames never removed Wideman from the game even after the apparent head injury.
According to the testimony of Auld, he “saw no signs of any distress in the grievant’s behavior after the incident and did not see any need to intervene, despite the fact that the concussion protocol after the game proved positive.”
Also, in the ruling it was divulged the text message where Wideman ripped the "stupid refs and stupid media" as to why he was going through the process, was sent to Columbus Blue Jackets forward Gregory Campbell, son of Colin Campbell, who originally handed out the 20-game suspension. In his original ruling, Bettman believed apologies by Wideman rang, "somewhat hollow" because of the text message.
Meanwhile, a Calgary Sun report in February stated that Henderson was still suffering from concussion symptoms and that his NHL officiating career may be over.
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