In an incendiary 23-page ruling on Wednesday that is being appealed by the NHL Players' Association, league commissioner Gary Bettman upheld a 20-game suspension levied against Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman for cross-checking linesman Don Henderson to the ice in a Jan. 27 game against the Nashville Predators.
Bettman's decision came a full seven days after an in-person hearing in the NHL's New York office, which included Wideman, Henderson and multiple representatives from the league, the team and the union.
Bettman pulled no punches in handing down his decision, writing that he did "not see a basis for a lesser penalty, particularly given the severity of the conduct involved.
"On the other hand, I have the authority to impose a more substantial suspension, and I am troubled by Mr. Wideman's total failure to accept any responsibility for his actions. Indeed, although he made much at the hearing about the apologies he had already made to Mr. Henderson, the sincerity of those apologies rings somewhat hollow given the text message he sent to a teammate on Feb. 2 – after the conclusion of the hearing before Mr. [Colin] Campbell – that "the only problem and the only reason I'm here is 'cause of the stupid refs and stupid media.'"
The league did not say how it came to access Wideman's text message about the incident, the most inflammatory detail revealed in Bettman's extensive and detailed ruling.
Bettman's written decision also revealed that the NHLPA wasn't interested in simply having Wideman's suspension reduced. It wanted it set aside.
Campbell, the league's vice-president of hockey operations, handed down the original suspension, after a hearing in the NHL's Toronto offices shortly after the all-star break.
Wideman spent the time off vacationing in Arizona, hiking and playing golf. During that time, he provided information on the state of his health to a pair of doctors hired by the NHLPA to provide expert testimony on the effects of concussion on a person's behaviour.
Bettman mostly shredded their testimony, calling it "speculative, at times contradictory, lacked support and … wholly insufficient to rebut the clear and convincing evidence provided by the video footage of the incident.
"In addition, I do not credit Mr. Wideman's testimony. In particular, I do not credit his testimony that he tried to avoid the linesman at the last minute. He did not swerve out of the way and he did not merely bump into the linesman or put his hands or arms on him. As noted, he raised his stick and cross-checked him in the upper back."
Bettman concluded: "Having made this determination, I am left with the firm view that a significant suspension is appropriate. On-ice officials simply cannot be made the target of a player's frustration or anger. As noted above, the NHLPA observed that a reduced suspension is within the realm of possibility, though the Union did not suggest one."
Under terms of the collective agreement, Wideman chose to appeal Bettman's ruling to a third-party independent arbitrator, whose decision will be binding on both sides.
In a response to the decision, the NHLPA signalled its intent to appeal by issuing a statement, saying: "We are extremely disappointed but not surprised that Gary Bettman upheld the decision of his staff to suspend Dennis Wideman for 20 games. This decision completely ignores the effects of the concussion that Dennis sustained when he was driven into the boards eight seconds before colliding with the linesman. We will appeal to the Neutral Discipline Arbitrator in order to have this decision overturned."
Wideman has missed seven games already. If nothing changes, he will lose $564,516.20 in salary. He is currently eligible to return to Calgary's lineup for a March 14 game with the St. Louis Blues.
Twice previously, Bettman has marginally reduced the punishment associated with an abuse of officials case and it ended there.
Ideally, the NHLPA would like to drive the penalty down to zero games, which, in Wideman's case, would simply mean he would get his lost salary back. There's nothing it could do about the games he missed.
Bettman concluded that while he also had the right to increase the length of the suspension, he declined to do so "in light of Mr. Wideman's prior exemplary disciplinary record."