Dispute Over NHL Player’s 20-Game Suspension Continues

The dispute over defenseman Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension for knocking a referee to the ice after being body slammed into the boards has created many questions in the NHL. Initially, there was an issue over whether players should be liable for conduct that occurs immediately after a head injury. The NHL seemingly thought this issue was resolved when the NHL Commissioner enforced the 20-game suspension against Wideman; however, that was not the end.

The NHL Players’ Association and Wideman appealed the suspension to a neutral arbitrator, arguing that Wideman did not fully understand his actions towards the referee because he was suffering from a head injury. The arbitrator overruled the Commissioner and lessened Wideman’s punishment to a 10-game suspension.

This decision raised another issue — can an arbitrator overrule a decision made by a NHL Commissioner. In late August, the NHL filed for summary judgment in a New York federal court seeking to vacate the arbitrator’s ruling. The NHL argued that the arbitrator’s role was simply to determine whether the 20-game suspension was supported by substantial evidence, and instead, the arbitrator exceeded his authority and reached his own conclusions.

In response to the NHL’s motion, the NHL Players’ Association asked the New York to uphold the arbitrator’s suspension. The Players’ Association used language from the NHL collective bargaining agreement to point out that the agreement allows a neutral arbitrator “to consider any evidence relating to the incident even if such evidence was not available to the Commissioner.” The Association essentially makes the argument that the NHL is simply displeased with the arbitrator’s decision and vacating the arbitrator’s decision in this case would essentially render arbitration hearings on disciplinary matters pointless.

Although the dispute over the arbitrator’s role in disciplinary matters is not over, there is a chance the New York court’s decision could change the fate of disciplinary matters in professional sports.

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