In the second period of the game between the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators on Jan. 27, Flames defender Dennis Wideman made contact with linesman Don Henderson. The contact was sudden and violent, Henderson went down hard, and since that game ended, the hockey world has endured a lengthy and convoluted discipline process.
It’s been more than three weeks since the incident and Wideman’s suspension length is still subject to another appeal hearing (having gone through two hearings already). And the blame for that primarily has to fall on the group that’s supposed to have his back the most, the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
THE NHLPA’S ROLE
Let’s back up a bit.
The NHLPA is a union. It represents the NHL’s many, many players – its membership hovers around 900 depending on how you count injured players – and its primary concern is advocating for the interests of the players. That means being concerned with days off, player safety and primarily – based upon the labour disputes they’ve been a part of – player compensation and the economics of the game.
When you boil it down and take an extremely cynical view of its role: the NHLPA exists to make sure players get paid fairly, and to minimize the amount they get fined (and if that happens, make sure it happens in a transparent manner).
THE WIDEMAN SITUATION
In the case of Wideman’s situation, the NHLPA’s role is primarily to advocate on behalf of the player and to advise and represent them during the disciplinary process. Functionally, that means trying to minimize the suspension and fine (and also to some extent any reputational damage the incident may have caused, as that also can factor into future contracts he may get). It behooves them to ensure none of their membership is thought of as “dirty” players.
Of course, it’s admittedly a challenge to minimize reputational blowback when the incident looks like this.
You basically have two tactics available when something like this happens: own all responsibility for the collision, or completely try to avoid it.
FEW “GOOD” OPTIONS
Wideman was suspended indefinitely by the NHL on Jan. 28, the day after the incident, pending a hearing with Colin Campbell (the head of Hockey Operations). The NHL’s justification for the suspension has been a mixture of Section 28 of the CBA (Supplemental Discipline) and Playing Rule 40. Long story short? They can review and suspend a player for any incident, regardless of whether they were penalized for it in-game, and that contact with officials is a gigantic no-no.
It’s impossible to argue that Wideman didn’t make contact with Henderson, so the discussion about whether to fight the suspension (and to what degree) really hinges on your ability and willingness to fight a battle regarding the intent of the hit and Wideman’s degree of responsibility and culpability for his own actions.
And here’s where the failure of the NHLPA to effectively advise and represent comes into play.
THE WRONG CHOICE
Is it reasonable to expect Wideman to be aware of the larger implications of a particular line of defense? Probably not, his primary job is to play hockey. But the role of the NHLPA in a situation like this one is to advise and protect their player’s interests.
The NHLPA should definitely be aware of the ongoing concussion lawsuit that the NHL is embroiled in, especially given how many former players have gotten involved in it. And they should have definitely known that going with a defense of “he didn’t know what he was doing, he had a concussion” would elicit a very tactical, aggressive response from the NHL.
In addition, on the same evening that Wideman collided with Henderson, a linesman got smoked by Milan Lucic during a fight. Given two official-related incidents on the same night, the league may have been concerned about pushback from the NHL Officials Association if the suspension was too lax. Particularly given the violent nature of the contact and how viral the clip went, the league was basically put in a situation where they absolutely had to send a message that their officials are off-limits.
First, the NHLPA really shouldn’t have led Wideman down the road of a “he was concussed” defense unless they felt it was a fight they could win decisively with a well-constructed, air-tight defense.
And by “air-tight,” I don’t mean having two
concussion specialists interview him over FaceTime several days after
the fact; I’m talking about bugging the Flames medical staff for whatever documentation they had and dragging as many medical personnel that were
directly involved in Wideman’s treatment that night as possible into the
hearing room to provide first-hand accounts. While it’s impossible to
really know how messed up Wideman was when he collided with Henderson,
an effective concussion/diminished capacity defense would need to
establish a general idea of how woozy a player could be in that
situation and link it in with testimony from the individuals that worked
with Wideman that night to place him within the range that they established.
If they couldn’t find a smoking gun from that night that could strongly paint Wideman as concussed and of diminished capacity, they never should have gone down this road.
Second, the NHLPA really should’ve known that the NHL – given their current circumstances facing a high-profile concussion lawsuit and the ongoing concerns of the league’s officials for their safety – would try to fight any concussion defense tooth and nail unless the medical evidence was comprehensive and overwhelming. (And even then, they’d probably still fight it hard just for the optics of the situation.) The defense as reflected in Bettman’s report – consisting of interviews with Wideman over FaceTime and seemingly absent of any direct or day-of-incident examinations of the player – was neither comprehensive nor overwhelming, and made things seem (from the outside) hastily put together.
All going with the concussion defense in the manner in which they did accomplished was prolonging this process and ticking off the NHL – I can’t be the only one that read the “text message” part of the Bettman decision as anything but a big middle finger to Wideman for making them go through three weeks of agonizing and time-consuming work.
A BETTER OPTION
Let’s be honest here: as soon as Wideman returned to the bench rather than scrambling over to Henderson and apologizing profusely on the ice, he was going to get suspended. There’s no questioning that. But the NHL’s agenda right now with the Wideman saga is two-fold: (1) to make it abundantly clear to its players (and fans) that their officials are completely off-limits to contact (aside from incidental or accidental contact during the flow of the game) and (2) to completely cover their own asses in regards to the concussion lawsuit they’re involved in.
Once the story blew up, with social and mainstream media playing the hit repeatedly, the best option for Wideman was probably to throw himself before the mercy of the court because public opinion was already against him. Similar to a “no contest” plea in legal cases, if Wideman had merely gone out before the media after his initial indefinite suspension had been announced and profusely apologized, stated that officials are off-limits and that he screwed up in the heat of the moment, and that he would accept whatever consequences the league felt necessary, he’d be playing by now. The league wouldn’t have had to have multiple hearings, or had to put together a 26-page report in anticipation of its examination by neutral arbitrators and concussion lawyers. The message would have been sent for them, and Wideman wouldn’t need to be made an example of.
I’m sure the NHLPA does a lot of things very well in the course of advocating for players. Heck, they get guaranteed contracts and pretty damn good money, so the union must be doing something right. But they completely failed Wideman in this situation by giving him some really shoddy advice, and undoubtedly that advice cost him a bunch of games played and a big chunk of money.