On Wednesday, the NHL put a definite number on Dennis Wideman’s heretofore indefinite suspension: 20 games. It’s an incredibly severe punishment, one of the longest in NHL history, but given the importance of protecting on-ice officials, the desire to inflict such a harsh sentence is understandable.
It’s also wrong, at least under the specific circumstances of this case. This is an overreach by the league, an excessive punishment that is unlikely to survive appeal. That process has already started, with the NHLPA announcing within hours that it had filed an appeal on behalf of the Calgary Flames defenceman.
The key issue here is the “intent to injure” provision of NHL Rule 40. Back when this was an indefinite suspension, I noted that if Wideman was judged as intending to injure linesman Don Henderson, the minimum suspension was 20 games; without that intent, the minimum suspension drops to 10 games. The NHL’s explanatory video makes a point of highlighting how the league determines intent.
"For the purpose of the rule, 'intent to injure' shall mean any physical force which a player knew or should have known could reasonably be expected to cause injury."
The NHLPA statement on its appeal of the decision specifically mentions this point, citing “the medical evidence presented at the hearing” as proof that there was no intent. It’s not hard to guess what the NHLPA means; the league addressed that medical evidence in its decision.
“Wideman is hit hard by the [Miikka] Salomaki check,” states the video, “and it is accepted for the purposes of this decision that he was later diagnosed as having suffered a concussion.”
The symptoms of a concussion vary depending on the individual involved, the severity of the event and the history of trauma, but the potential ramifications of that statement loom large here. According to the Mayo Clinic, a concussion may cause confusion, amnesia and irritability, along with a host of other problems. Anyone who has suffered a concussion, or seen a friend or teammate go through one, can speak to the truth of those symptoms.
The league offers no explanation for Wideman’s sudden and bizarre attack on Henderson; indeed, it noted he “has had an exemplary NHL career” and “never been fined nor suspended” in 755 career games. The incident is utterly out of character, until we go back to the potential confusion and irritability resulting from a concussion.
The NHL’s explanation presents Wideman skating to the bench and tapping his stick for a player change as evidence that he was clearheaded enough to be fully responsible for his actions. It’s easy to think that those actions were done on autopilot, though. How many times in 755 career NHL games (and countless contests at other levels) would Wideman have gone to the bench tapping his stick?
If he was moving to the bench by rote, it’s easy to imagine him suddenly becoming aware of a body in front of him. It’s equally easy to imagine him reacting violently in anger and confusion, without processing the fact that it is an official. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other reason why a player with such a clean track record would suddenly and randomly attack a figure as innocuous as a linesman.
The NHL also implied that Wideman’s refusal to accept medical aid is a mark against him.
“By his own admission,” says the video, “Wideman repeatedly refused medical attention and remained in the game.”
It’s a little silly on the face of it to link declining medical attention with a player being in his right mind. It’s also worth noting that in hockey culture, it’s often a point of pride to play through injury, including head trauma. As Ken Campbell of the Hockey News pointed out, that’s why NHL concussion protocol is designed to take the decision to seek treatment out of the player’s control.
"The league knows the last person who can likely be counted upon to be objective about having a brain injury is the player himself," Campbell wrote, "and the protocol is in place to take the decision about a course of action out of his hands."
According to TSN’s Rick Westhead, NHL concussion protocol wasn’t followed in this case, and the Flames may be facing sanction if the league agrees:
It’s understandable that the NHL wants to protect its officials. It’s not just understandable, actually; it’s laudable. Referees and linesmen do an incredibly difficult job, and they deserve to do it without having to worry about physical harm from the players they oversee. Undoubtedly, that’s what motivated the league to lay such a heavy punishment on Wideman.
What I keep coming back to, though, is there seems to be no rational explanation for Wideman’s actions other than that his judgment was severely impaired due to a concussion. There’s no history that suggests Wideman is prone to taking out his frustrations with a stick; he’s either a clean player or the sneakiest cheat in NHL history. Neither of those fits with committing such a stupid and obvious attack on Henderson.
The NHL’s suspension is predicated on intent, on the idea that Wideman should have known there was a reasonable expectation of injury on this play. I can’t get there. Wideman’s history and the very nature of the incident argue too forcefully that he was in no condition to intend to injure Henderson.
This should have been closer to a 10-game than 20-game suspension. Wideman did what he did, and the NHL isn’t wrong to protect its officials. Claiming intent is just a step too far.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.