Gary Bettman took a calculated risk when he cited “intent to injure” as the reason for handing Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman a 20-game suspension earlier this year.
In the end, it came back to bite him.
Independent arbitrator James Oldham, who was summoned for a ground-breaking appeal by the NHL Players’ Association, ruled on Friday that Bettman’s conclusion that Wideman intentionally hit linesman Don Henderson "is not substantially supported by the totality of the evidence."
Oldham reduced Wideman’s suspension to 10 games. As a result, he’s eligible to rejoin the Flames immediately. Calgary hosts the Coyotes tonight at the Saddledome.
There was a widespread belief that, even though the league needed to come down hard on Wideman as a show of support for the league's officials, there was little chance that Bettman’s ruling would withstand appeal.
Ironic then that the most damaging rebuttal to Bettman]s stand was provided by NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom, who testified there likely was no intent in Wideman's actions.
“[Wideman] was upset, he’s skating to the bench, and he made a mistake," Walkom said. "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.”
Oldham used that testimony to apply Rule 40.3, which provides for an automatic penalty of not less than 10 games for offenses involving a player who “deliberately applies physical force to an official in any manner ... without intent to injure.”
"This is the description into which, in my opinion, Wideman’s actions fit easily," Oldham wrote in his decision.
There's room to disagree with that conclusion, and that's something the NHL intends to do according to a statement released Friday afternoon. “We are reviewing the Opinion in detail to determine what next steps may be appropriate."
According to the CBA, that battle already has been lost. But there is room for further discussion between the two sides.
Wideman's case was the first test of the appeals process written into the 2013 CBA, and first runs can be bumpy. But these proceedings took 44 days from start to finish. That's inexcusable.
By the time Oldham's decision was rendered, Wideman already had served 19 games of his original suspension. And while he'll get back pay for time missed ($282,258 worth), he was robbed of the chance to play in nine contests. A check won't cover that.
And it could have been worse. Imagine if the player waiting on the process was part of team locked in a battle for a playoff spot. A delay like this could have skewed the standings and potentially cost his club a postseason berth and millions of dollars in revenue.
Of course, the solution shouldn't be too hard to find. It's right there in the mirror. Both the NHL and NHLPA took turns jamming a stick in the spokes of the process as they focused on establishing a precedent that would benefit them in the future rather than finding a fair resolution for Wideman's case.
Because of that, everyone lost. Bettman's decision was cut in half. The PA failed to have it vacated completely.
While they pushed for extreme results, Wideman was left idling on the sidelines.
And then there's Henderson, the linesman who's season, and perhaps career, is over. Intent or not.