Wideman hearing centers around issue of workplace safety for officials

Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman will plead his case to the NHL this afternoon in Toronto after being automatically suspended for crosschecking a linesman from behind in a game last Wednesday night.

One of the more interesting discipline hearings of this season will take place this afternoon when Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman defends himself at the NHL offices in Toronto. Suffice to say there are a number of moving parts at work here.

The NHL is faced with a vexing situation. On one hand, if it does not suspend Wideman at least 10 games for abuse of an official, there is little doubt the on-ice officials who work the 1,230 games each season will not be happy. Linesman Don Henderson reportedly spent a night in hospital after being crosschecked from behind by Wideman in the Flames 2-1 loss to the Nashville Predators last Wednesday and the officials, quite understandably, are concerned about their workplace safety.

Would officials withdraw their services in a wildcat strike style, a la the spring of 1988 when they refused to take the ice during the playoffs after the infamous confrontation between New Jersey Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld and referee Don Koharski? Probably not, but there will likely not be a lot of happy officials working games if Wideman is not given a substantial punishment.

The NHL basically has the latitude to suspend Wideman for any number of games it sees fit, since the most serious penalty for abuse of an official is no fewer than 20 games. And the NHL Officials’ Association, which is involved in the hearing, could argue to have the Category I suspension applied. That particular section reads: “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.”

Well, we know there was an injury in the incident. Henderson finished the game, but was taken to hospital after the game complaining of nausea and a stiff neck and underwent concussion tests until 5 a.m. Henderson is not scheduled to work any of the 12 games on the schedule tonight, presumably because he’s taking part in the hearing this afternoon. It is not known whether Henderson is still feeling the effects of the incident. The NHL would not confirm whether or not Henderson will be in Toronto for the hearing.

There is little doubt that Wideman did not intend to injure Henderson in the incident, but here’s an interesting caveat. He technically did not have to intend to injure him in order to get 20 games. In the Category I suspension, there is a very telling addendum, which reads: “(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.)”

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Should a player who, for whatever reason, crosschecks a linesman with a distinct follow-through motion, have known or reasonably expected that doing that could have caused an injury? Well, not if Wideman was dazed and confused at the time. He did take a rather substantial hit in the corner from Miikka Salomaki of the Predators, then got up and approximately 8.65 seconds later, ran into Henderson.

Wideman said after the game that he didn’t see Henderson, although the video clearly shows that Wideman had his head up the entire time he was skating back to the Flames bench after the hit. “I was kind of keeled over and at the last second I saw him and couldn’t avoid it,” Wideman said. “I couldn’t see him and didn’t know where to go or how to get away from him.”

But if we’re to accept the notion that Wideman was confused or dazed or otherwise incapacitated, then why was he not ushered immediately to the quiet room to be assessed for a possible concussion. Where exactly was the NHL’s much-heralded concussion spotter at the time, stuck in the line for popcorn at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Even the television analysts picked up on the fact that Wideman appeared affected, with play-by-play man Rick Ball opining to color analyst Kelly Hrudey: “Dennis Wideman looks a little shaken up here, too, Kelly.”

Perhaps this was an accident, but the follow-through on the crosscheck is certainly damning evidence against Wideman. So is the fact that he was clearly frustrated immediately after the hit, slamming his stick on the ice after he got up.

The Calgary Flames, Wideman and the NHL Players’ Association will undoubtedly be pushing for leniency in this case, painting Wideman as an innocent party in an unfortunate accident. The officials will likely argue that even if Wideman didn’t intend to injure Henderson, he should have known that drilling him with a crosscheck from behind created an environment for that very possibility.

It will be an intriguing couple of hours at the NHL office to be sure.