The NHL Wants You to Believe Dennis Wideman Is Guiltier than He Is
The Wideman incident has become even more confusing after the league downplayed his concussion and declared his actions deliberate.
Photo by Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
The NHL handed Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman a 20-game suspension Wednesday for hitting linesman Don Henderson in the back during a game last week. It was a severe banishment that was distributed by NHL Hockey Operations, not the Department of Player Safety, as this incident involved an official.
At the time the news was released, it was an understandable decision but one that seemed to have more questions than answers. What about the head injury that Wideman appeared to suffer about 10 seconds before he knocked over Henderson? Where were the concussion spotters? Does this suspension totally ignore that? Because, if it was acknowledged doctors didn't examine Wideman, would the NHL be liable in any way? After all, this is a league facing concussion lawsuits from former players.
Admittedly, I had something written Wednesday night addressing these questions and I came to the conclusion that the NHL couldn't acknowledge the head injury because Wideman stayed in the game after his hit. The league had no choice given the circumstances to levy a 20-game suspension, one that even if appealed by Wideman, appeared to have little chance of being reduced by commissioner Gary Bettman or an independent arbitrator.
Then the NHL released a video explaining the decision, and, well, it made the 20-game suspension seem a bit stranger.
Wideman's concussion is acknowledged, albeit in the way someone "acknowledges" a drinking problem by putting serious things in air quotes when talking about them. The tone of the video is odd. It states facts in a forceful way and gives the appearance of an airtight case, but the language and video paints a different picture.
The entire thing is just... odd.
So in an effort to better understand and explain this unfortunate incident, I decided to transcribe the NHL's explanation and analyze every word of it.
On January 27 in Calgary, Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman delivered a forceful cross check from behind to National Hockey League linesman Don Henderson, causing him to fall face-first to the ice surface, where he remained for several seconds.
Nothing here seems to be in question. These are the facts of the case and the only thing worth parsing is the use of "cross check," but we'll get back to that in a minute.
As the video shows, just after making a pass out of his defensive corner, Wideman is finished into the boards with a hard, legal check by Nashville forward Miikka Salomaki.
Choose your favorite euphemism—bell rung, dinged, scrambled, or one I'm trying to introduce into the mainstream, concussed—but this is where Wideman's mental state would become a point of contention for a defense attorney. But the NHL isn't talking about this, so let's just accept the league's factual statement and proceed.
Upon skating half the length of the ice parallel to the boards to make a line change, Wideman approaches Henderson, who is skating backwards and toward an oncoming Wideman.
This is where the NHL begins to use language to mount a seemingly strong argument against Wideman but it's really nothing more than educated guesswork. If you have a concussion, what does "skating half the length of the ice" have to do with anything? Is that distance somehow enough time for a concussed person to regain their faculties? If he had knocked over Henderson at the blue line or just above the face-off circles, is he no longer liable? The use of "half the length of the ice" is designed to make you think that stretch of real estate makes Wideman guiltier, which it does not.
As the two converge, instead of stopping or otherwise taking steps to avoid the collision, Wideman raises his stick and proceeds to aggressively cross check a vulnerable and unsuspecting Henderson in the upper back, causing the linesman to fall to the ice.
Was Henderson unsuspecting and vulnerable? No doubt. Henderson is a victim here and you really feel for him. I get annoyed at the whole "never played the game" crowd, but there's something to be said for putting on skates and getting hit from behind when you have no reason to brace for the impact. You are going down and going down hard.
The part that bugs me is the NHL saying Wideman did nothing to stop or take steps to avoid the collision. The problem with this video is we never see Wideman's eyes, where they are looking or if they are glazed over after his brain injury. Based on Wideman's body language, he reacts really late to Henderson's presence, as if he's unaware he's there, then tries to step around him but it's too late, so he throws his hands up and knocks Henderson over.
That's why while this is technically a cross check, that's not how you cross check someone out of anger or frustration. That's done through the middle of the back. Wideman's hands are so high it's as if Henderson stunned him, which is the sort of thing that happens when you have a brain injury and are dazed.
It's hard to explain if you've never been through a jarring thump of that nature. Your vision blurs. That image in your field of vision could be 5 feet or 50 feet in front of you. Sounds are muffled and highlighted with a ringing. Your body is moving but you're not sure who is controlling it because it's not you.
There's a reasonable argument for both sides, but considering all the events that occurred before the hit, it's very presumptive to assume you know the intent of a man whose eyes you can't see.
This is conduct violative of NHL Rule 40—physical abuse of officials. Specifically, it is violative of Rule 40.2, which states: "Any player who deliberately strikes an official and causes injury or 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.
Again, words and their meanings. Did Wideman hit Henderson? No doubt. Hard? Oh yeah. Deliberately? And with intent to injure? Good luck finding 12 jurors that would agree to that.
(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.)
This is where the state of Wideman's brain is paramount in any decision. It's difficult to be reasonable when you perhaps don't know where you are in the moment. To expect someone who just suffered a concussion to know what could be expected from physical force they weren't aware they were applying or about to apply seems unfair.
But if the NHL is just going to ignore Wideman's mental state, there's no way you can fight it on... what's that?
Wideman is hit hard by the Salomaki check and it accepted for the purposes of this decision that he was later diagnosed having suffered a concussion.
Wait, we are acknowledging the brain injury? Just not considering it a mitigating factor? Why even acknowledge it then?
However, that fact, even accepted as true, cannot excuse Wideman's subsequent actions.
"Even accepted as true." Next time you are told sports leagues take concussions seriously, remember the time one was reported to the NHL and its reaction was, "I mean, even I was to believe this medical diagnosis..."
And no one is saying it should excuse Wideman's actions, but it should be taken into consideration considering his non-violent past.
First, although he appears to get up slowly from being checked, Wideman skates steadily and purposely to his bench, taking a half-dozen strides to get there.
Again, what is the league's infatuation with the distance Wideman covered after what the NHL is now acknowledging is a hit that caused a concussion? Are six strides part of the concussion test and I don't know about it? And steadily? I'm not a cop but if I pulled over Wideman and he got out of the car and started moving like that during a sobriety test, he's getting arrested. While other aspects of this play are open for interpretation, I don't know how anyone can objectively say Wideman looked steady on his feet here.
Wideman also demonstrates his continued awareness of his circumstances and surroundings when upon approaching the Calgary blue line, he raises his stick and then taps it on the ice to alert his teammates he's coming off for a line change.
Boy, more leaps about what a guy whose eyes we can't see is demonstrating. I'm willing to concede that Wideman was making his teammates aware of a line change, but I'm also of the belief he possibly didn't know what he was doing, either. He could have been running on auto-pilot here, which happens in the aftermath of a concussion.
Moreover, by his own admission, Wideman repeatedly refused immediate medical attention and remained in the game.
Sports: The only place in the world where you can have a brain injury and the person in the equation who isn't the doctor has control over whether he places himself back into a situation where his brain will almost definitely be rattled again.
But even assuming the player's claim that he was disoriented as a result of the Salomaki check...
More dismissing of a diagnosed brain injury. You can't make this stuff up.
...Wideman still cannot be excused from the nature and severity of the offense he committed on the ice.
No one is saying he should be! I'm not, anyway. I'm saying you can't sit here and acknowledge a man had a concussion and then tell me, "but he was good enough because he took six strides and tapped his stick on the ice." Wideman having suffered a concussion seconds earlier undercuts the entire argument about him definitely having "intent" and a reasonable understanding of what he was doing.
It is obvious from the video that Wideman did not merely bump into or collide with the linesman; he delivered a forceful blow that was no accident.
It's really not obvious but I'm out of gas here.
Wideman must remain accountable for his own actions.
We all must. But even court systems take medical conditions into account for things like murders. If you fall asleep at the wheel and cause an accident, even that is usually treated differently. And courts certainly don't say things like, "While both the state's and defense's doctors agree the accused was of diminished capacity... whatever, screw it, electric chair."
It is important to note Wideman has had an exemplary NHL career. In 755 games, he has never been fined nor suspended.
Is it really important to note this? The video is basically over and he's getting 20 games.
However, physical abuse of an official is one of the most serious offenses an NHL player can commit and even if this was an isolated, out-of-character lapse in judgment, it requires a significant penalty.
For sure. It does. It would just be nice if the brain injury that you, the NHL, acknowledged wasn't treated like Wideman said his dog ate his homework.
To summarize, this was conduct violative of NHL Rule 40, physical abuse of officials. The circumstances, nature and severity of the cross check delivered by Wideman renders it conduct the player knew or should have known could reasonably be expected to cause injury. Wideman has never been fined nor suspended previously during his 755-game NHL career.
Dennis Wideman has been suspended for 20 games.
Maybe the wording of this ruling is setting up Wideman for a reduced sentence to something like 10 games. It's hard to imagine Bettman doing anything to upset the officials, so a neutral arbitrator will likely have to be the one to consider treating this like the accident it could have been.
The real issue could be how the NHL's public acknowledgement and handling of a concussion situation affects any ongoing or future litigation. If people within the organization aren't taking concussions seriously because they saw a guy from behind take six strides after suffering one, that may be a problem down the road.