Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman received a 20-game suspension for checking an official, but the controversy isn’t nearly over yet. The players’ union released a strong statement defending Wideman, and he will appeal: perhaps his first of two. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen on the ice, making for one of the least clear-cut instances of player discipline I can remember. I honestly have no idea what I think should happen to Wideman—but now that the NHL has dug in, its motivations aren’t entirely on the up-and-up.
Despite this being a hockey ops punishment and not the Department of Player Safety, the NHL released a video explaining Colin Campbell’s 20-game ruling. The important part is the league’s insistence on citing NHL rule 40.2, under “Physical Abuse of Officials.”
40.2 Automatic Suspension – Category I - Any 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, or who in any manner attempts to injure an official shall be automatically suspended for not less than twenty (20) games. (For the purpose of the rule, “intent to injure” shall mean any physical force which a player knew or should have known could reasonably be expected to cause injury.)
Keep in mind, there are words and phrases in here that require judgment. “Deliberately.” “Intent to injure.” “Attempts.” The NHL is arguing that the rulebook requires it to suspend Wideman at least 20 games. That’s not quite true. Campbell’s chosen interpretation of the rulebook calls for 20 games.
But it’s very important for the NHL to make it look like the decision was out of their hands. Because Wideman’s defense brings up a more general player safety issue—and a looming class action lawsuit—that the league would prefer not come into play here.
Wideman initially said he didn’t see linesman Don Henderson, that he looked up at the last minute, and tried to dodge left, only Henderson went left too, and the two collided. But in his Tuesday hearing, Wideman’s side officially presented the defense that the player was concussed from a hit suffered seconds earlier. He did indeed look woozy on the bench, though he stayed in the game, and was later diagnosed with a concussion.
In the video explanation, the NHL took that argument head-on. It noted that Wideman didn’t seek medical attention, and that Wideman’s claims of disorientation “cannot [excuse] the nature and severity of the offense he committed on the ice...Wideman must remain accountable for his own actions.”
Ostensibly, the repeated mentions of accountability apply to the hit itself. Not so subtly, it’s also pegging Wideman with the responsibility for playing through a concussion. That’s no small thing. The NHL is dealing with liability and perception issues over its handling of brain trauma, and the perhaps intractable problem of what to do about players generally refusing to self-report concussion symptoms. It’s in the league’s interest to put that entirely on its players, and not just for public relations: yesterday, 12 more former NHLers joined a class-action suit against the league for its handling of concussions over the years, bringing the number of plaintiffs to 115. Giving any credence to Wideman’s defense would have been an admission that most of the time, there’s just not much the league can do about players playing through head trauma.
The NHL was in a bind here. It was impossible to know Wideman’s motivations when he hit Henderson, but something bad happened, and the league, under pressure from the referees’ union, had to find someone or something at fault. Accepting Wideman’s concussion defense would have been a dangerous precedent, and pushed that fault over to the NHL itself. Colin Campbell dodged that thornbush altogether when he cited a rule with a mandatory suspension, which necessarily had to ascribe malice to Wideman’s actions. The league did not have to give Wideman 20 games, but it looks a hell of a lot better for the NHL if it makes it appear it had no choice.
The NHLPA is fighting back, of course. Its statement, in part, said, “The facts, including the medical evidence presented at the hearing, clearly demonstrate that Dennis had no intention to make contact with the linesman.” The Flames, through president Brian Burke, released a statement of their own saying they “maintain that Dennis’ collision with the linesman was unintentional and accidental.”
Wideman’s appeal will be ruled upon by commissioner Gary Bettman. Then, unless Bettman reduces the suspension to six games or fewer, Wideman can appeal to a neutral arbitrator. There can be no definitive or satisfactory answer on what Wideman was thinking, only a just application of the rulebook. So far, it’s been applied in a way that gives the NHL exactly what it wants.