Dennis Wideman of the Calgary Flames was suspended 20 games on Wednesday for what the National Hockey League felt was an attack on linesman Don Henderson.
This is double what many expected from Colin Campbell and the NHL, but it makes sense given that the impetus here wasn’t to punish Wideman but to let the League's on-ice officials know that the NHL is looking out for them.
To reset the situation: On Jan. 27, Wideman took at hit along the boards from Miikka Salomaki of the Nashville Predators on Wednesday night. He got up slowly and skated to the Flames’ bench but then, inexplicably, raised his gloves and stick into the upper back of Henderson and knocked him to the ice.
The Flames defenseman then calmly stepped back onto the bench and sat down, looking dazed.
“I took a pretty hard hit down in the corner. Had pretty good pain in my shoulder and my neck. I was trying to get off the ice. I kind of keeled over. At the last second I looked up and I saw him,” said Wideman, who wasn’t penalized on the play.
“I went over to Donny and apologized on the ice. I didn’t know how to get out of the way of him.”
That last part of his postgame statements was one of the few indications that Wideman wasn’t of sound mind when he attacked Henderson. But that opens up a Costco-sized can of worms on this incident: About concussions, protocols not followed, the NHL's approach to a player who might have been affected by a concussion in that moment and, ultimately, about a concussion lawsuit looming over the NHL by its former players.
That’s essentially why many people felt the NHL would see this as a “Category 2” abuse of officials violation: Something done without intent to injure.
Instead, it was a “Category 1” violation, in which a player who “deliberately strikes an official and causes injury, or who deliberately applies physical force in any manner against an official with intent to injure … shall be suspended for not less than 20 games.”
That intent to injure, by the way, means “any physical force in which a player knew or should have known could reasonably be expected to cause injury.”
So 20 games means, “You knew what you were doing, and we know what you did.” Twenty games means, “you were pissed off you didn’t get a call, and hit anything wearing stripes because of it, and that's how we see it.”
But as we said: This wasn’t just for Wideman. This was for Henderson or any official that might believe the NHL doesn’t have their back.
Because, let’s face it, the relationship between the zebras and the zookeepers has been a little tenuous.
(I know that some believe that they way the NHL fines individuals who criticize referees is them “protecting” those officials, but it’s much more about protecting the League’s image and maintaining an appearance of impartiality. Which is why despite some officials wishing they could explain themselves on calls – not just Tim Peel – the NHL muzzles them.)
There’s the relationship between Campbell and the officials, whose rancid nature was brought to light in the email scandal five years ago.
There’s the Department of Player Safety and the Coach’s Challenge, whose functions are partially to correct mistakes made on the ice. In the case of the Coach’s Challenge, the League was very careful to make sure the on-ice officials were the ones reviewing their calls on goalie interference and offside – although the latter call probably reverts to the War Room in Toronto next season.
As Mark Spector of Sportsnet wrote this week, the NHL Officials Association was watching the Wideman decision very closely. Denis Morel, an ex-referee, said, “I wouldn’t mind 20 games in this situation. It would give a good example to the players.”
My prediction: If the league low-balls this suspension — anything under 10 games, in my opinion — there will be a response from the NHLOA members. Again, only my speculation: Whether they work to rule, call everything the first night back, or call nothing, if the perception is that the game doesn’t have Don Henderson’s back the zebras will make it clear — for a period of time — that they don’t have the game’s back either.
Elliotte Friedman also expected the NHLOA to ask for 20 games.
And Wideman got 20.
I would be shocked if there wasn’t an appeal – $564,516 is a lot of beer money to lose, and the NHLPA would seem desirous to test the arbitration system. The first stage is Gary Bettman, who likely rubber stamps Campbell’s suspension. The next is an independent arbitrator.
If it gets knocked down … ‘hey, sorry NHL officials, we tried to do what’s right, but the appeals process the players wanted decreased the suspension. Shucks.”
I think for many of us, there was intent to injure on the part of Wideman. But it’s just that we’re not sure who he thought he was injuring in that moment, and why he intended to do so.
There’s no question handing him 20 games avoids any lingering questions about his mental state, or at least kicks them to an arbitrator. It avoids having “did this guy have his wits about him?” as a reasonable defense in a player safety hearing, going forward. And it sends a message to the on-ice officials that the NHL’s greatest consideration is their safety. It was, in hindsight, an obvious call.
As for Henderson ... well, maybe he's just catnip for players plowing into him.
No suspension there.