In his ruling upholding Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension for physical abuse of an official, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did not mince words. Not one little bit. Not only did he not accept the NHL Players’ Association’s notion that Wideman’s actions were the result of the effects of a concussion, but he crushed it, cast it aside and argued it basically had no shred of validity.
In a 22-page explanation of his ruling that made for compelling reading, Bettman made it clear that he agreed with the suspension that was brought down by senior vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell. In fact, he made it clear that rescinding or reducing the suspension was not even considered. In fact, Bettman said he believed Wideman acted out of character – but was not impaired – and that was the main factor that deterred him from imposing a suspension that was even longer.
Not surprisingly, the NHLPA announced Wednesday evening it will make Wideman's case the first ever to go before independent arbitrator James Oldham. “We are extremely disappointed but not surprised that Gary Bettman upheld the decision of his staff to suspend Dennis Wideman for 20 games," the NHLPA said in a release. "This decision completely ignores the effects of the concussion that Dennis sustained when he was driven into the boards eight seconds before colliding with the linesman. We will appeal to the Neutral Discipline Arbitrator in order to have this decision overturned.”
Much of the NHLPA’s case rested on the testimony of expert witnesses Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, an associate professor in the department of neurology at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Paul Comper, a clinical neuropsychologist and research scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. Although Bettman did not deny that Wideman suffered a concussion on the hit by Miikka Salomaki of the Nashville Predators just seconds before he crosschecked linesman Don Henderson from behind, he clearly refuted the notion that the concussion impaired Wideman’s judgment so badly that he could not be held accountable for his actions.
Bettman pointed out that neither Kutcher nor Comper actually treated Wideman, instead relying only on an interviews they held with Wideman four days after the incident while Wideman was in Arizona during the all-star break hiking and golfing. Bettman said that the doctors provided insight not on, “what Mr. Wideman’s capacity actually was at the time in question, but about what his condition might have been…For these reasons, and based on my review of the video of the incident, Drs. Comper and Kutcher do not come close to persuading me that the decision to suspend Mr. Wideman was not supported by clear and convincing evidence.” Bettman went on to say: “In these circumstances, the hypothesis that Mr. Wideman lacked ‘situational awareness’ strains common sense beyond the point of credibility.”
Bettman’s biggest problem was that both Comper and Kutcher apparently formed their opinions based on what Wideman told them and accepted his version of the events at face value. “They could have, but did not, seek to corroborate statements by speaking with the club’s medical trainer, who was not consulted by either Dr. Comper or Dr. Kutcher or asked by the NHLPA to testify at the hearing about Mr. Wideman’s supposed ‘confusional state’. ”
To support his beliefs, Bettman provided a detailed exchange during a cross-examination of Dr. Comper:
Q: So when you said on your direct examination in response to Mr. (NHLPA lawyer Roman) Stoyewych’s question about whether you believe the things that Mr. Wideman told you, you said you have to believe what your patient is telling you?
Q: But Mr. Wideman wasn’t your patient?
A: That’s correct.
Q: So you didn’t have to believe what he told you, correct?
Q: But you did?
Q: And…you didn’t do anything to kind of test out whether what he was telling you might not be the case, did you?
A: That’s correct.
Q: You simply accepted it at face value?
Q: And would you agree with me that Mr. Wideman certainly had, at least potentially, the motive to exaggerate his symptoms in order to obtain a report that said he wasn’t responsible for his actions, that’s at least a possibility, isn’t it?
A: It’s a possibility.
Q: …and you didn’t discuss that in your report, did you?
(There is no indication here that the inquisitor then did a mic drop at that point, but you could certainly see that happening, can’t you?)
A couple of other things of interest in Bettman’s ruling. He says that the NHLPA was not interested in seeing the suspension reduced, that it wanted it completely rescinded based on Wideman’s lack of situational awareness. Bettman also pointed out that the concussion spotter log, “showed 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. 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.”
It was also interesting that the hearing produced a text Wideman had sent to a teammate prior to his original hearing saying, "the only problem and the only reason I'm here is cause (sic) the stupid refs and stupid media." Since the arbitration process is like court, that information was part of the discovery process and could be used. The league, for example, also had to produce texts from Henderson after the incident.