The decision by the NHL to suspend Calgary defenseman Dennis Wideman 20 games for a vicious crosscheck to the back of linesman Don Henderson won’t catch many people by surprise.
It was the safe play, a penalty clearly prescribed by the rulebook.
According to Rule 40, which the league quoted in announcing the decision, the NHL had the option to suspend Wideman for a minimum of 10 or 20 games. The difference lies in whether or not there was an “intent to injure” which, for the purpose of this rule, involves “any physical force which a player who or should have known could reasonably be expected to cause injury.”
Striding up behind an unsuspecting official and delivering an arms-extended two-hander to his back clearly fits that criteria. It was as ugly and malicious an attack as you're likely to see.
Of course, there were extenuating circumstances. Moments before the assault, Wideman had taken a hard blow to the head. He shook it off then proceeded to the Flames’ bench, where he came across Henderson and took his shot.
It’s entirely plausible that, having just had his eggs scrambled, Wideman was not completely in control of his senses at that moment. And thus, perhaps not entirely responsible for his actions.
But if he tried to sell that explanation during Tuesday’s 90-minute hearing, the NHL clearly didn’t buy it.
And who can blame them? Wideman’s lack of immediate remorse as he continued to the bench painted a picture of intent. And his decision to finish out the game—he played 12 more shifts, not missing one—couldn’t have helped his case. Wideman is not the first player to finish out a game in a fog, but if he was concussed, he didn’t create any wiggle room for his defense by toughing it out.
In the minds of league officials then, Wideman was culpable for his actions. And having arrived at that conclusion, the NHL realized it had to make a statement. Anything less than the maximum for an assault this egregious and the league risked alienating its officials. That’s a battle it neither wanted, nor needed, to wage. So, it’s 20 games and the loss of $564,516.20 in earnings.
That’s a statement, alright.
Wideman has the option to appeal the ruling to Commissioner Gary Bettman, and the NHLPA announced late Wednesday afternoon that he would take advantage of that.
“We strongly disagree with the League’s decision to suspend Dennis Wideman," the union offered in a statement. "Dennis has played in 11 NHL seasons and almost 800 games without incident. The facts, including the medical evidence presented at the hearing, clearly demonstrate that Dennis had no intention to make contact with the linesman. An appeal has been filed on the player’s behalf.”
Dan Carcillo, the last player to be suspended for abuse of an official, was given a 10-game ban on May 23, 2014 after he caught a linesman with his stick while being escorted to the penalty box. His penalty was reduced by Bettman to six games.
The nature of the contact in that case offered a little room for clemency. This one, not so much. A line was crossed in a way few of us have ever seen. Hard to imagine Bettman bending here...or the blowback he'd face if he did.
You wonder though what it will take for the league to afford its players similar protection.
It’s not an apples-to-apples situation. For one, this case was administered by Hockey Operations, rather than Player Safety. And then there’s the scale. The hit on Henderson is the sort of cheap shot that players inflict upon each other without a second thought every night of the season. When it’s one player on another, that kind of contact is viewed as just part of the game.
But there have been many infractions, like the Tyler Myers two-hander to the skull of Tommy Wingels:
Or the Radko Gudas shot to the head of Mika Zibanejad:
They cry out for a stiffer response from the league. Something that suggests they take the health and safety of the players as seriously as they do that of the officials.
Now that? That would be a surprise.