West Coast Bias: What the officials say about the Wideman hit

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.

The National Hockey League Officials Association will be watching Tuesday’s Toronto hearing very closely, as Dennis Wideman faces a disciplinary panel for cross-checking linesman Don Henderson Wednesday night in Calgary.

Working officials are discouraged from speaking with the media, and an email went out to all officials the morning after the Wideman incident asking them to keep their opinions to themselves in the name of due process. We spoke to some former zebras, and a few people in the active refereeing community to get a gauge on where the officials stand however, and it is clear most are expectant of a suspension of at least 10 games for Wideman.

“It doesn’t matter if he got hit before, or if he was not in full (consciousness),” said former long-time NHL referee Denis Morel. “No less than 10 games for sure. That was, in my books, a cheap shot.

“I wouldn’t mind 20 games in this situation. It would give a good example to the players.”

Another former referee who did not want his name used was surprised by the player involved. “I know Wideman’s a good guy, I always loved him on the ice. But he made a bad decision,” the ref said.

After the game, Wideman explained the play.

“I tried to get around him. It was obviously, in my view, not intentional. I would never try to hurt a linesman or a ref or anything like that,” he said. “Throughout my career — I’ve been around for a few years (11 NHL seasons) — I think I’ve treated every official with the utmost respect. I would never intentionally try to hit a linesman or a ref or anything like that.

“It was completely unintentional and I already apologized to him.”

As the day wore on Thursday, and the video was viewed by almost every official past and present, opinion began to sway pretty heavily away from Wideman’s account of the events, however.

“If Henderson had a Calgary jersey on do you think (Wideman) would have touched him?” one ex-ref asked. “If that was a lady standing there? An old man? Would he have hit him? There are a lot of excuses out there.”

A former linesman who worked more than 25 seasons in the NHL wasn’t buying Wideman’s story for a second. He saw Wideman take the hit from Nashville’s Miikka Salomaki in the corner.

“He looks for a call and doesn’t get one. So, in my mind he’s pissed off at the referees at that point,” the ex-linesman said. “I read what he said, and I know he apologized. However, he’s looking straight ahead. He’s not dazed, just a little bit hurt in my opinion. Then he sees Hendy, he’s pissed off at anything in stripes, and he whacks him.

“What else could it be? He doesn’t try to get out of Henderson’s way. Hockey players are pretty good skaters. Even if he sees him at the last second, does that mean he has to cross check him in the back?

“It was a dirty thing, and he knew what he was doing in my mind.”

The hearing will be crowded on Tuesday. Wideman will have ample representation from the NHL Players’ Association, while the NHLOA’s long-time Chief Legal Counsel Harry Radomski is expected to be joined by NHLOA President Dan O’Halloran and Henderson.

In an interview in Nashville Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman indicated he’d be involved in the hearing as well. “I may ultimately have to be in a position to be making a judgement here, and I try to never prejudge things,” he said when asked for an opinion on the incident. “There’s a process we have to go through and ultimately we’ll get to the right place.”

Henderson spent much of the night in hospital with a back issue after the hit, and was under the concussion protocol of the Flames medical staff in the 48 hours after the incident. He is said to be doing much better now.

One more note on the officials: As a group I’ve always found them to be comparable to police. They do a lot of the dirty work for the society that exists on ice surfaces across the NHL, and though they are paid well they don’t ask for a lot of glory or favours.

When the perception is that one of them has been in some way abused, or left unprotected by the game that they protect nightly, they band together. A punch in the chops during a scrum, like linesman Jay Sharrers took from Milan Lucic the other day, is considered a distasteful yet acceptable part of the job they signed up for.

This Wideman incident? It definitely does not fall under that same category.

My prediction: If the league low-balls this suspension — anything under 10 games, in my opinion — there will be a response from the NHLOA members. Again, only my speculation: Whether they work to rule, call everything the first night back, or call nothing, if the perception is that the game doesn’t have Don Henderson’s back the zebras will make it clear — for a period of time — that they don’t have the game’s back either.

So Vancouver, then Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton are the four lowest-ranked teams in the Western Conference at the All-Star break, in descending order. A year ago on this date, Winnipeg was fifth in the West, Vancouver and Calgary were tied for seventh, and Edmonton was again dead last with 10 less points than this season.

In the East, Montreal (11th), Ottawa (12th) and Toronto (14th) are all outside the playoff picture, though the Senators and Canadiens are within striking distance.

You’ve got to go back to 1970 to find the last time not a single Canadian team made the playoffs. That season, the only two Canadian teams — Montreal and Toronto — brought up the rear in the East Division.

With seven Canadian teams in the league today — almost a quarter of the league — could it happen again? In our books, only the Sens, Habs and Canucks have realistic chances of making the post-season. The rest of the Canadian clubs are in tough.

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