Possible head trauma could have played role in Wideman incident

At first glance, Dennis Wideman hitting a linesman during Wednesday’s Calgary Flames game looks intentional, but context surrounding it puts the check in a very gray area.
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I’ll admit it: Part of me wants to believe Dennis Wideman when he says that his brutal hit on linesman Don Henderson on Wednesday night was completely incidental.

Because the alternative—that the veteran Flames blueliner would intentionally endanger a defenseless official—defies all logic.

Wideman, who has been suspended pending a hearing with the NHL next week, pled his case after the game, which was won by Nashville, 2-1.

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“Throughout my career—I’ve been around for a few years—I think I’ve treated every official with the utmost respect,” he told reporters. “I would never intentionally try to hit a linesman or a ref or anything like that. It was completely unintentional and I already apologized to him.

“I was just trying to get off the ice and at the last second I looked up and saw him. I couldn’t avoid it. I didn’t know where to go or how to get out of the way of him.”

Okay, it happens. Officials wander into the path of players moving at high speed on a nightly basis. Sometimes, contact is unavoidable.

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But in this case? The video evidence seems to contradict Wideman’s account. He’s seen moving at a measured pace toward the Calgary bench, tapping his stick to signal a change, and appears to have a clear view of Henderson retreating toward him through the neutral zone. (To be fair, we can’t say that for certain without an opposing camera angle, but his head is up as Henderson enters the frame.) And as Henderson skates between him and the bench gate, cutting off his exit from play, Wideman is seen turning toward the official, getting both arms up and blasting him squarely in the back.

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Avoidable? Absolutely. Wideman could have angled off to his right and slipped around Henderson, or wrapped an arm around the official as he tried to slide around him.

Intentional? When you see him put both hands on his stick and lean in to finish the hit, it’s hard to read it as anything but.

It certainly looks like a grave error in judgement, but that’s not all there is to the story. Just rewind the video 10 seconds and there’s the exculpatory evidence: Wideman staggering to regain his balance after being hammered head-first into the boards by Nashville forward Miikka Salomaki. Whether or not the damage caused by that hit rose to the level of concussion, it appears as though he wasn’t thinking at full strength. And watch the little stutter step he does just before he hits Henderson. Does that signal a last-second flash of recognition--which should have come much earlier if he was clear-headed--that contact was imminent? 

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That’s why this will be a difficult case for the league’s Hockey Operations department. (Because the victim was an official, the Colin Campbell-led group will oversee this case rather than the Department of Player Safety.) They could reference Rule 40.2, which states, “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.” Or they could use Rule 40.3: “Any player who deliberately applies physical force to an official in any manner, which physical force is applied without intent to injure, or who spits on an official, shall be automatically suspended for not less than ten (10) games.”

Ultimately, they have to decide whether Wideman was capable of deliberate action at that point. Although he finished out the game, playing another 12 shifts, he wouldn’t be the first player to tough it out after having his bell rung. And even though the defenseman didn’t use head trauma as an excuse in making his post-game comments, it almost certainly will be part of his defense.

Stay tuned.