On a Wednesday night in late January, Dennis Wideman collided with linesman Don Henderson in the midst of the second period of a game between the Calgary Flames and the Nashville Predators. On a Friday afternoon in mid-March, after missing 19 games, Wideman’s exile from the National Hockey League finally came to an end. When came between those two moments was 44 days of hand-wringing, second-guessing and administrative downtime. And what will follow is an awful lot of relief and introspection from everybody involved, as nobody came out of this situation unscathed.
Wideman, for his part, has been repentant throughout the affair – aside from a text cited in commissioner Gary Bettman’s initial appeal decision that cited the “stupid refs and stupid media” driving the furor over the incident – and he’ll rejoin a team that went 7-10-2 in his absence, largely running in place en route to a high draft pick this summer. The 32-year-old served 19 games of the suspension before it was reduced back to 10 games, so he’ll get roughly $280,000 back in lost salary for the nine extra games he served. The blueline in Calgary seems centered around Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie for the long-term, so Wideman has been playing for his hockey future this season. For a player whose stock is rapidly losing value in a league that’s increasingly putting an emphasis on speed and puck possession, Wideman’s 19-game siesta couldn’t come at a worse time.
The Flames? They gained an opportunity to audition Jakub Nakladal and Tyler Wotherspoon in Wideman’s absence, and got a chance to test-drive the newly-acquired Jyrki Jokipakka in key situations following the trade deadline. However, the club is right up against the salary cap this season – and might actually creep over due to performance bonuses to Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett – and they won’t receive any cap relief at all, even for the nine games when Wideman should have been available. Any cap overage from this season will count against next season’s cap hit and considering that the salary cap isn’t expected to move significantly next season, and that Monahan and Gaudreau are due for new contracts, every single dollar saved would have been a huge relief for the Flames.
In his address to the media following the final verdict, Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke was a picture of restraint. His main criticism was the drawn-out nature of the process, though he noted that the arbitration portion was a fairly standard length – potentially even expedited – for such a process. It’s not difficult to imagine the Flames pushing for more concrete timelines for appeals to be written into league policies in the future to prevent another club from having to remain in roster limbo for as long as they did.
For the NHLPA, the decision represents a small victory in the never-ending game of chess between them and the NHL’s executives. Their experiences with their appeal to Bettman, with a failed defense deeply-rooted in concussion medicine, could potentially lead them to push for improved medical documentation for future concussion situations. More comprehensive medical evidence likely would’ve helped in their appeals on behalf of the player, and the gradual evolution of the NHL’s concussion protocol and their ongoing legal wranglings with a group of former players – whose lawsuit revolves around the league’s knowledge of concussion science – will also likely aid in that realm.
For the League, the decision represents a rare loss in an appeals process, and a fairly significant milestone as a loss in the first-ever appeal to the neutral arbitrator. It would not be surprising to see the League review the rule-book in the future; the halving of Wideman’s punishment was vested in an “intent to injure” framing of the punishment. Given that a concurrent 20-game drug policy suspension to Arizona blueliner Jarred Tinordi has no lengthy appeals process, the parties involved may want to eliminate future recurrences of the Wideman Neverending Story saga. Given how this saga concluded, there may be a desire to trim out vague, hard-to-prove terms like an action’s “intent” from the disciplinary sections of the rulebook and focus instead on an action’s result, as their drug policy does.
The forgotten party in all of this legal chaos may be the actual victim, linesman Don Henderson. According to the most recent reports from the Calgary Sun’s Eric Francis, Henderson has yet to resume his officiating duties and his career may be in jeopardy. If that’s the case, that fact may be the tipping point that transforms this overdrawn comedy of errors into a bonafide tragedy.