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On the play in question, Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman was still smarting from a hit to the head moments before. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
On the play in question, Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman was still smarting from a hit to the head moments before. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

NHL sends strong message with Dennis Wideman’s 20-game ban Add to ...

Referee Mike Leggo was captured in a memorable YouTube moment a few years ago that tells you all need to know about Wednesday’s massive 20-game suspension issued by the NHL against Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman.

Leggo was getting grief from then-Dallas Stars’ forward Shawn Horcoff over a penalty call, so as Leggo skated over to the box (with his microphone turned on), he loudly informed Horcoff, “You can’t do that” – and assessed a two-minute hooking call.

Wideman was suspended for running over and cross-checking linesman Don Henderson during the Flames’ 2-1 loss to the Nashville Predators last Wednesday; the NHL announced its decision in a terse, three-sentence news release, specifying the penalty but without going into any details.

Ultimately, they didn’t need to. It came down to those same four words: You can’t do that.

You can’t make contact with an official, especially when, like Henderson, he’s in a vulnerable position with his back turned.

The NHL has a mandate to protect its officials, and any mitigating circumstances that might have lessened the penalty were overridden by the need to send a clear, strong message in this case.

Officials are off limits, no matter what.

According to the league’s statement, Wideman’s 20-game ban was assessed for “conduct violative of Rule 40 – physical abuse of officials – during NHL Game No. 742.”

Under the terms of the collective agreement and, based on his average annual salary, Wideman will forfeit $564,516.20 (U.S.) (it goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund).

On the play in question, Wideman was still smarting from a hit to the head by the Predators’ Miikka Salomaki. Appearing groggy as he skated toward the Flames’ bench, Wideman saw Henderson impeding his path and so raised his stick and knocked the unsuspecting official over from behind.

Henderson went down in a heap along the boards, and though he continued in the game, he spent the rest of the night in hospital under observation.

The NHL suspended Wideman indefinitely following the game and held a hearing into the incident in its Toronto offices Tuesday, with NHL Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell presiding.

Wideman’s defence team included Flames general manager Brad Treliving and president of hockey operations Brian Burke, who once held Campbell’s job as the NHL’s chief disciplinarian.

Nowadays, most NHL player suspensions are handled by the Department of Player Safety, but because Wideman’s transgression came under the “abuse of officials” rule, it fell to Campbell to render a verdict.

Wideman can return for the Mar. 14 game against the St. Louis Blues, with 17 games remaining in Calgary’s regular-season schedule. If the Flames, eight points out of a playoff spot going into Wednesday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, had any interested in trading Wideman ahead of the Feb. 29 NHL trading deadline, this will put a severe crimp in those plans.

Wideman was a key player for the Flames when they unexpectedly made the playoffs last season. He scored 56 points in 80 games, the fourth-highest total among NHL defencemen, and logged an average of 24 minutes 38 seconds of ice time a night.

Wideman’s role diminished this season after the Flames acquired defenceman Dougie Hamilton from the Boston Bruins last summer. His ice time is down on average about three minutes a night, and he had 19 points in 48 games before the suspension, playing mostly on the third pairing with Deryk Engelland.

In Wideman’s absence, little-used Ladislav Smid was expected to draw into the lineup against the Hurricanes. Wideman has one year remaining after this season on a contract with an annual average salary-cap charge of $5.25-million.

The Flames will almost certainly appeal the length of the suspension, one of the longest in NHL history for abuse of officials. The last player suspended under Rule 40, Daniel Carcillo, had a 10-game suspension reduced to six games on appeal.

As expected the NHLPA filed an immediate appeal on Wideman’s behalf and said it strongly disagreed with the decision.

Wideman did not immediately respond publicly to the suspension. After the game against the Predators, however, he went to great lengths to explain that what he did wasn’t intentional, and that he’d apologized to Henderson immediately.

According to Wideman, the hit from Salomaki left him with “some pretty good pain in my shoulder and neck. I was just trying to get off the ice. I was kind of keeled over. At the last second, I looked up and saw [Henderson]. I couldn’t avoid it. I went up to Donnie and apologized to him on the ice. I didn’t see him. I didn’t know where to go – or how to get out of the way.”

On the night of the incident, Wideman said he would be “surprised” if he faced supplementary discipline on the play.

“I would never try to hurt a linesman or a ref,” Wideman said. “If that [an investigation] happens, all I can do is tell them my side and hope for the best.”

Those hopes were largely dashed Wednesday. Maybe Wideman can do better on appeal.

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