And so, in the end, nobody won.
Dennis Wideman sat out nine games more than he had to while the league underwent an unprecedented legal process that took 44 days.
Far too long.
The player lost unnecessary playing time, his reputation and plenty of money. His team lost his services and the chance to trade him.
Linesman Don Henderson may have lost his career and the NHL lost face.
On Friday neutral discipline arbitrator James Oldham reduced Wideman’s 20-game suspension to 10 games, allowing Wideman to play as early as tonight when the Flames host Arizona.
Oldham simply didn’t agree with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s finding the blindside hit to Henderson’s back Jan. 27 was a “crosscheck,” nor was it intended to hurt the official.
“My fundamental disagreement with Commissioner Bettman’s decision, is that, … I do not think Wideman’s behavior was animated by an intent to injure Henderson,” said Oldham in his 17-page ruling.
“The Commissioner’s conclusion that Wideman’s behavior constituted intentional action within the meaning of Rule 40.2, automatically triggering a penalty of not less than 20 games, is not endorsed in this appeal because, in my opinion, that conclusion is not substantially supported by the totality of the evidence presented to me at the NDA hearing.”
Thus, the final ruling on the case cites the proper application of Rule 40.3, which does not include intent and dictates the automatic suspension be not less than 10 games. Oldham’s finding was based, in part, on new testimony from, of all people, director of officiating, Stephen Walkom.
That ought to make things a little uncomfortable around the office.
“My testimony is that he [Wideman] was upset, he’s skating to the bench, and he made a mistake, and he cross-checked the linesman, and he knocked him to the ice with enough force to hurt him, even though he probably didn’t intentionally mean to hurt him,” Walkom told the hearing in open, honest testimony he likely never figured would come back to haunt his fraternity.
At the end of the day, that was the difference in the 10 games, as spelled out by the rulebook. Another odd twist in the ruling came news that the damning text from Wideman’s phone Bettman made public after the first appeal – blaming the “stupid media and stupid refs” for his plight - was to Gregory Campbell. The two men were traded for each other in 2010.
He happens to be the son of league VP Colin Campbell, who made the initial ruling in this case.
Embarrassing. Not surprisingly, the league disagreed with the ruling.
“We strenuously disagree with the Arbitrator’s ruling and are reviewing the Opinion in detail to determine what next steps may be appropriate,” said the release, hinting at further legal reaction.
“We will have no further comment until we have completed our review. In light of and in response to Arbitrator Oldham’s Opinion, Mr. Wideman will be reinstated and will be eligible to participate in his team’s games, effective immediately.”
So now what?
Well, Flames hockey president Brian Burke confirmed Wideman would be in the lineup Friday night, which makes sense since he's been practicing with the team throughout this six-week process.
Wideman will be reimbursed half of his original fine, which amounts to $282,000.
How the Flames can or should be compensated is anyone’s guess as they have been out of the playoff race for a long time. Wideman, who is expected to speak after the game, should be relieved the appeal process is over and he can play again. He gets plenty of money back and to some small degree he’s vindicated as his contention all along was that it was accidental contact in that he was concussed and never knew he hit Henderson.
Flames doctor Ian Auld testified Wideman was found to have a concussion despite the fact concussion protocol clearly wasn’t followed during the game as he was allowed to remain in the contest.
That’s a story for another day.
“There is no dispute that the (Miikka) Salomaki check against the boards produced a concussion,” wrote Oldham of the hit Wideman received seconds before the incident in question.
The only ones angrier than Bettman at this embarrassing conclusion have to be the Calgary Flames who lost a significant piece of their lineup for nine games more than they had to. More importantly, it certainly hindered any efforts the Flames would likely otherwise have been making to trade Wideman and the $5.25 million cap hit ($6 million in real dollars) he has for next year.
Without being able to move Wideman, 32, the Flames had to give up on the notion of trying to re-sign a more important defenceman, Kris Russell, who thus had to be traded at the trade deadline.
Not even the NHLPA was completely happy with the ruling.
"Given that it was undisputed that Dennis suffered a concussion mere seconds prior to his collision with linesman Don Henderson, we felt strongly that there should have been no discipline,” said the NHLPA’s release.
“Nonetheless we are pleased that Arbitrator Oldham found that the collision was not intentional and that the suspension was reduced to 10 games. We respect the process and the decision and we look forward to Dennis returning to the ice tonight with his teammates."
And the hockey world looks forward to seeing the entire process streamlined down the road, quite possibly with the player being allowed to play while the appeal process is underway, a la Major League Baseball.
Meanwhile, Henderson is still suffering from concussion symptoms and has yet to resume his career – a career that may very well be over given his age, 47, and injury.
Wideman’s reputation is in tatters and the league looks foolish in many ways for how horrifically all of it was handled.
A PR nightmare indeed, with no winners in sight.
While Henderson is the one still at home dealing with various ailments, almost everyone involved ended up taking a hit in this one.