On Wednesday night, one of the weirdest incidents of this NHL season took place during the second period of a game between the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators. Defenceman Dennis Wideman seemed to attack linesman Don Henderson as he made his way to the Flames bench.
The league decided to do the sensible thing and take its time making a decision. On Thursday, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that the NHL had opted to suspend Wideman indefinitely and arrange for a hearing before determining a final sentence:
Indefinite suspension for Wideman pending post All Star hearing.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) January 28, 2016
It was a bizarre sequence of events. Wideman isn’t exactly noted for playing a physical game; he hasn’t even cracked 50 penalty minutes since 2008. A linesman is somewhere near the bottom on the list of targets for an angry player to vent his rage on, somewhere below the 20 skaters dressed for the other team and the two referees in terms of likelihood. Add in a hit that slammed Wideman’s head off the glass right before he made his way to the bench, and the NHL has a lot to go over.
It’s worthwhile at this point to break down the factors the NHL will need to consider, and to do that, we need to start with the video.
The hit at the start of the sequence, from Nashville’s Miikka Salomaki, makes initial contact with Wideman’s shoulder, but it spins the defenceman and raps his head off the glass as a result. He’s clearly shaken by the collision, and he also looks discombobulated on the bench afterward.
However, Wideman did finish the game for Calgary. As former NHL referee and current TSN columnist Kerry Fraser pointed out, there were other indications that he was still relatively lucid.
“Wideman sufficiently regained his faculties to proceed to the Flames players’ bench,” writes Fraser. “He had the presence of mind to raise his stick and slam it to the ice as a signal to the bench that he was coming for a change.”
It’s baffling that Wideman wasn’t pulled from the game and checked for a concussion. If this doesn’t trigger that protocol, it’s hard to imagine what would. But he was back on the ice two minutes later and that, in combination with the behavior that Fraser observes, makes it difficult to simply wave this incident away. However, the timing of the hit immediately prior to a player with Wideman’s long and relatively peaceful track record, combined with the strangeness of the target, means it’s a factor that must be considered.
The NHL has some discretion under its official rulebook (warning: PDF). It seems clear that Wideman should have been given a game misconduct under Rule 40.1, which states that “any player who deliberately applies physical force in any manner against an official” should be tossed from the game. Rule 40 also provides for three categories of supplemental discipline in such cases:
- Category I: force applied with intent to injure: minimum 20-game suspension
- Category II: force applied without intent to injure: minimum 10-game suspension
- Category III: physically demeaning or threatening an official, or deliberately applying force immediately after an altercation: minimum three-game suspension
It seems unlikely that Category I would apply here. According to the the Globe & Mail, the NHL has only given three 20-plus game suspensions in its history for abusing officials, one in 1927, one in 1983 and most recently in 2000, when enforcer Gordie Dwyer went off the rails during an exhibition game.
After the game, Wideman told reporters that he didn’t see Henderson until the last minute and apologized to him for a “completely unintentional” hit. He also denied that he’d been concussed on Salomaki’s hit. Sportsnet.ca ran a video with his full comments.
The NHL also considers player history when assessing suspensions, and Wideman not being a repeat offender should work in his favour.
Fraser wrote that Category II should apply in this case, though he acknowledges the possibility that the NHL will accept Wideman’s claims and reduce the suspension to a Category III incident. Those incidents generally involve players doing something threatening in the general direction of an official, such as when Jeremy Roenick tossed a water bottle in 2004.
There aren't a lot of comparable incidents to use as a baseline for Wideman's, but it’s hard to disagree with Fraser’s view that “it would be a reach” to reduce the suspension to that level.
Still, it’s worthwhile for the league to take its time on this decision, particularly given the timing, something which was wryly noted by Nick Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press:
The NHL All-Star Game is coming up, and the big stories are Dennis Wideman and John Scott.— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) January 28, 2016
Wednesday was the last day of NHL games before the league’s All-Star break, and there’s no way that the NHL wants the festivities in Nashville overshadowed by whatever decision it makes on Wideman. Deferring the decision both affords the league more time and delays it until after the All-Star Game.
The information-gathering phase is important for the league so that it can arrive at a fair punishment for Wideman. However, at this point, it seems likely that Wideman’s shove will fall under Category II, which means that the Flames will have to play at least 10 games during the stretch drive without his services.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.