To the surprise of no one other than perhaps Dennis Wideman himself, the NHL upheld the 20-game suspension it had handed to the Calgary Flames defenseman for the vicious cross-check he delivered to the back of linesman Don Henderson.
In fact, he might have caught a break when Gary Bettman chose not to extend the penalty even further. Because in reading Bettman’s 23-page summation, it's clear the commissioner had no time for Wideman’s concussion-theory defense.
But that’s something for which both he and the NHLPA should have been prepared. After all, accepting that head trauma may have affected Wideman's actions could have an impact on the league's defense in the ongoing class-action concussion lawsuit. And Bettman's not in the business of providing ammunition to the enemy.
It's hard to separate one case from the other when reading Bettman's report, particularly in the gleeful way he dismissed the testimony of two experts hired by the NHLPA who suggested that Wideman was in “a confused state” and thus not responsible for his actions. Bettman belittled their input as “speculative, at times contradictory, lack[ing] support and ... wholly insufficient to rebut the clear and convincing evidence provided by the video footage of the incident.
“The hypothesis that Mr. Wideman lacked ‘situational awareness’ strains common sense beyond the point of credibility,” Bettman said.
If Bettman had simply said Wideman's argument was unsupported by the evidence, that would be a reasonable finding. But to trash it the way he did reveals an obvious and unsettling bias.
Look, I'm not suggesting that Wideman deserves the free pass the NHLPA sought, or even that his sentence should have been reduced. Henderson was assaulted, that's a plain fact. And he and his brothers in stripes deserve the full support and protection from the league that the 20-game suspension suggests.
But for Bettman to state that the player's actions couldn't in any way be attributed to the effects of a head shot is ludicrous. In fact, the possibility that Wideman’s wires were crossed after taking a hit from Miikka Salmomaki of the Predators is about the only way to make sense of a completely senseless act.
But that's a door Bettman couldn't open.
Have to wonder, though, how he reconciles his findings with his protection of the league's toothless concussion protocol.
“During the hearing, the NHLPA introduced evidence that the Calgary concussion spotter log shows a notation of ‘motor incoordination/balance’ problems and that the Player should have been removed from the game and evaluated pursuant to the NHL-NHLPA concussion protocol,” Bettman wrote. “I make no finding at this time on whether the Club violated the concussion protocol, a question that need not be decided here and that I reserve for another day.”
In other words, at least one league employee, using common sense, believed Wideman may have been concussed on the play. But the follow-up, or lack thereof, isn't pertinent here.
So Wideman is left with the option to plead his case one more time before an independent arbitrator, an action the NHLPA plans to set in motion. He might even catch a break there, although he did himself no favors by shifting blame to “the stupid refs and stupid media” in the wake of the incident.
That statement, captured in a text sent to a teammate and turned over at the request of the league, is a reminder that Wideman is no victim. But he didn't get a fair shake, either. And that's not a good look for the league.