Trying to make sense of Dennis Wideman’s harsh 20-game suspension

Watch as Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman runs over a referee after a taking a scary hit against the Nashville Predators. Dennis Wideman's 20-game suspension was upheld by the NHL after an appeal.

There are three possible reasons behind the 20-game suspension to Dennis Wideman, the fifth NHL player suspended this century for abusing an official.

One of them isn’t because it was the fair or correct decision.

It may have been:

1. The league and executive vice-president Colin Campbell had this one decided before a single word of defence was heard, believing that for political reasons they had to be seen to be throwing the book at Wideman.

2. The linesman in question, Don Henderson, has suffered a very significant injury that will sideline him for a lengthy period of time and has not yet been announced. It’s worth noting that even if this is the case, the league has always been reluctant to link suspensions to time missed.

3. The NHL went in believing Wideman and the NHL Players’ Association will appeal (a formal appeal was filed Wednesday) and the suspension will be reduced, and wanted to set the initial number very high.

Otherwise, this is one curious suspension that comes from the same league that prefers to keep player suspensions under five games and only threw the book at Raffi Torres after he’d been warned, fined or suspended 10 times.

Now, officials are a different category. They are essentially non-combatants who aren’t wearing the same equipment as players, so obviously they deserve added protection under NHL law.

Despite the fact Wideman claimed no intent, he probably had to be punished in some way, shape or form. Even if he was woozy after being hit by Nashville’s Miikka Salomaki or suffering a "stinger" in his shoulder area, he needed to make sure that collision with Henderson didn’t happen, and it’s fair to say he didn’t do that.

But 20 games worth (and $564,000 in lost income) after an incident in which the official in question finished the game? A 20-game suspension after Milan Lucic, on the very same night, punched a linesman in the jaw and received nothing?

Folks, check out the pre-season collision between Yannick Weber and the aforementioned Henderson. Just as nasty. And no league discipline. Heck, Jake Muzzin of the Kings totally blindsided referee Kelly Sutherland on Jan. 8. No league discipline.

Yet this is something completely different?

Now, the partial answer here is that while Stephane Quintal and the Department of Player Safety handles player-on-player issues, Campbell was in charge of dealing with this incident.

So you’ve got a different set of eyes, a different individual judgement.

Secondarily, the appeal goes first to Gary Bettman. If he reduces the suspension to five games or less, that’s it. If it’s six games or more, the NHLPA and the player can go to a neutral, third party arbitrator.

That was something added in the last CBA, and you can bet the union is just waiting to take it out for a spin.

While some wish to treat this as a straightforward black-and-white issue, it wasn’t. This is very much a subjective situation open to wide interpretation. It certainly looked a lot more like accidental contact (like the Weber collision with Henderson) than anything deliberate. That’s what Wideman testified, and the same presentation was given by Flames management, by union representatives and by Larry Kelly, who is Wideman’s former agent. The defenceman doesn’t have an agent currently.

But the league ignored all that.

It’s certainly odd that a league that loves to hand out slaps on the wrist – small fines, one or two game suspensions – has suddenly discovered draconian punishment to a first-time offender is the best medicine, that stepping over the line just once is all the reason needed to come down like a ton of bricks on an offender.

Not surprisingly, the NHLPA filed an appeal on behalf of Wideman Wednesday evening.

Campbell had to have decided that Wideman intended to hit Henderson, which requires a significant stretch of logic. If Wideman did act with intent, what possible reason did he have to go after Henderson? They hadn’t argued. There was no previous conflict.

The real explanation for this suspension may be a political one. If Wideman’s appeal eventually goes to a third party, and his suspension is reduced significantly, the league can still tell the officials association it did all it could to protect NHL officials.

That would at least make some sense.

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