On January 27 Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman took a hit to the boards from the Nashville Predators’ Miikka Salomaki. On the play, Wideman’s head appeared to hit the glass. After laying on the ice for a few seconds, he got up, still looking groggy and skated to the Flames bench. But just before he entered the Flames bench he cross-checked linesman Don Henderson from behind. Henderson went down immediately. Estimates are that the whole sequence of events took between eight and nine seconds.
Wideman was not assessed a penalty on the play and Henderson finished the game, but did spend the night in a Calgary hospital under observation. The NHL immediately suspended Wideman indefinitely pending a full investigation and hearing that was held in Toronto on February 2. Given that the incident involved an official, the only real question was how long the suspension would be and if Salomaki’s hit on Wideman had been a factor.
A day after the hearing, we got the verdict. Twenty games, assessed for “conduct violative of Rule 40 – physical abuse of officials – during NHL game No. 742”. The NHLPA has already stated that it will appeal the decision, which will be heard firstly by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and then by an independent arbitrator1James Oldham, an independent arbitrator jointly by the League and the NHLPA if Wideman and his representatives are not happy with Bettman’s review. Under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, Wideman will forfeit US$564,516.20 in salary, which will go to the Players Emergency Assistance Fund. We would expect Bettman to rule that the penalty is appropriate, if only to protect the NHL officials, if nothing else. That means that Wideman’s case may be the first to go to an independent arbitrator.
While Wideman is obviously the only one who knows, for sure, whether his hit on Henderson was intentional, the whole situation brings to mind more questions and points for discussion.
Wideman’s explanation was that he was dazed from the Salomaki hit and didn’t see Henderson until the very last moment, at which time it was too late to avoid Henderson. Wideman apparently apologized to Henderson soon after the incident and again later that evening2he later stated that the Salomaki hit left him with “some pretty good pain in my shoulder and neck. I was just trying to get off the ice. I was kind of keeled over. At the last second I looked up and saw Henderson. I couldn’t avoid it. I went up to Donnie and apologized to him on the ice. I didn’t see him. I didn’t know where to go – or how to get out of the way”. In the player’s defense, he has no history of violent conduct, either against another player or against an official. However the NHL has made it very clear on numerous previous occasions that abuse of officials will not be tolerated, so a lengthy suspension was anticipated.
The League took the position that it was clear abuse of one of its officials and ruled accordingly. It really had no choice. Any other decision would put its officials at risk and would undoubtedly trigger the officials association to take a stance with the league. Wideman, the NHLPA and Flames management took the position that Wideman was dazed and was unaware of what he had done. If he was dazed, it isn’t clear why he stayed on the bench after the incident. The NHL’s concussion protocol requires that any player suspected as having any kind of concussion, even if considered minor, he must go to the so-called “Quiet Room” for further examination. Media sources in Toronto are now reporting that Wideman was in fact diagnosed with a concussion and that the “concussion spotter” at the game advised the Flames bench that showing symptoms of a concussion and should be taken to the “Quiet Room”. It is also being reported that the Flames trainer(s) wanted Wideman to go to the Quiet Room, but Wideman refused.
This latest development throws a whole different light on the matter. If in fact the Flames bench was notified of the possibility of a concussion, why was it left up to the player to determine whether he stayed on the bench or went to the Quiet Room? If a player is truly concussed, is he in a position to make that decision as to whether he stays in the game or not? If the League has taken the time to institute a concussion protocol and employs “concussion spotters”, why does the process not immediately take matters out of the player/his team’s hands and put it in the league’s hands or at the very least the hands of a qualified, impartial medical staff?
It seems that the League finds itself in a very awkward situation now. If in fact the concussion protocol was not followed correctly, then they may have ruled incorrectly, or at the very least prematurely. If the player is found to have been concussed, to any degree, how does the league prevent players from using the concussion defence in the future for any attacks on opponents or officials? If the Flames coaching staff actually were informed about the possible concussion, will the league take action against the team for ignoring the protocol?
Wideman is a useful player and was a pleasant surprise last year in the Flames run to the playoffs, getting 56 points in 80 games. His role diminished somewhat this season as the Flames acquired Dougie Hamilton from the Boston Bruins over the summer, reducing Wideman’s ice time by about three minutes a game and bumping him to the Flames third pair of defensemen. The Flames are struggling to make the playoffs this year and if the 20 game suspension is upheld, Wideman will be out until March 14, by which time the Flames will have 17 games left in their regular season. Between now and March 14, the NHL trade deadline will be upon us (February 29) and if the Flames find themselves as sellers at the deadline, how can they trade a suspended player or an injured player and expect a suitable return? With one year left on his contract at US$5.25 per season, Wideman would be a classic trade deadline target for a contender looking to add depth on their blue line.
No one wins here. Wideman’s reputation has been tarnished and he may well have a medical issue. The NHL may have overstepped its bounds by ruling so quickly, perhaps without sufficient evidence. The Flames may have contravened a league policy and be subject to a fine or other penalties. Henderson may also have a concussion.
It’s a mess, and likely no clear winner will emerge from this situation. Let’s hope that whatever the reason(s) for this ugly incident, all of the facts are on the table before a final ruling is made.
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|1.||↑||James Oldham, an independent arbitrator jointly by the League and the NHLPA|
|2.||↑||he later stated that the Salomaki hit left him with “some pretty good pain in my shoulder and neck. I was just trying to get off the ice. I was kind of keeled over. At the last second I looked up and saw Henderson. I couldn’t avoid it. I went up to Donnie and apologized to him on the ice. I didn’t see him. I didn’t know where to go – or how to get out of the way”|