We’re likely going to hear a lot over the next little while about Dennis Wideman’s “intent” when he drilled linesman Don Henderson from behind, an action which earned him a 20-game suspension from the NHL for abuse of official.
There is the camp that believes there was no ill intent on Wideman’s part, that it was an unfortunate accident and that Wideman was perhaps a little dazed from the hit along the boards that he took from Nashville Predators winger Miikka Salomaki, a hit that occurred about 8.65 seconds before Wideman took Henderson out with a crosscheck from behind.
Judging by Wideman’s comments after the incident, that was probably a key part of his defense in his disciplinary hearing yesterday. It will likely be his stance when he appeals to commissioner Gary Bettman, then likely ultimately to an independent arbitrator, to get the suspension reduced.
But can you imagine what kind of a precedent that would set if the NHL accepted that argument? You can just envision it now, can’t you? Player ‘A’ takes out Player ‘B’ with a big hit along the boards. Player ‘B’ gets up, both dazed and angry, and attacks Player ‘C’, a teammate of Player ‘A’ and seriously injures him. If the NHL were to accept Wideman’s argument, would that then not allow Player ‘B’ to plead his case on the same basis?
Yes, the NHL got this one right, it seems, even if the intent was to go heavy in the expectation that it could be cut down later in the appeal process. The league absolutely has to look out for the safety of its referees – even if it’s guilty in many, many occasions of not doing the same for its players – and by imposing the 20-game penalty, it can say to its officials that it meted out the maximum suspension and any decision of an independent arbitrator is out of its control.
But here’s the other thing. If I’m reading the rule correctly, Wideman’s intent in the whole thing might be a moot point here. Here’s how rule 40.2 covering abuse of officials reads: “Automatic Suspension – Category I - 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. (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.)”
To these eyes, the crux of the matter lies entirely in the bracketed caveat that follows the rule and defines intent to injure, by saying it entails “any physical force which a player knew or should have known (italics mine) could reasonably be expected to cause injury.”
Between getting pasted into the boards by Salomaki and hitting Henderson from behind, Wideman had about 8.65 seconds to contemplate the result of his actions. He skates toward his bench, head up the whole way, so it’s difficult to believe he didn’t see Henderson standing there. And if he hadn’t, would he not have simply run into him without putting his arms up? The NHL had to be convinced that in that 8.65 seconds, Wideman had no idea that his running into Henderson would reasonably be expected to cause an injury to Henderson, who is wearing minimal equipment and is not prepared to take a hit from behind the way a player might be. It turns out the NHL didn’t believe that and hit Wideman with the most serious sentence it could hand out.
It’s almost impossible to judge a player’s intent in this case, so all you have remaining are the actions. And the actions look pretty damning if you’re Dennis Wideman. There’s no real evidence that Wideman suffered a concussion on the play, since he was back on the ice two minutes later and was fit to fly to Toronto for the hearing Tuesday afternoon. So there goes your dazed and confused defense, which as we discussed, would lead down a pretty slippery slope.
So what we’re left with is one of two things – anger or recklessness. And when you’re playing in the NHL, you’re supposed to have the discipline to control both of those things and remain on the right side of the rulebook. That wasn’t the case with Dennis Wideman.