Reduction of NHL Player’s Suspension for Allegedly Striking an Official Heads To a New York Federal Court

On June 9, 2016, the National Hockey League filed suit in New York to challenge an arbitrator’s decision to reduce Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman’s suspension for “intent to injure” and “abuse of an official.” In its complaint, the NHL argues the arbitrator overstepped his bounds by substituting his own judgement for that of the NHL’s rather than assessing whether the NHL’s determination was reasonably supported.

This complaint stems from a January 27, 2016 game between Wideman’s Calgary Flames and the Nashville Predators. Midway through the game Wideman collected the puck in his own zone, played it to a teammate, and then was body checked into the boards by Predators forward Miikka Salomaki. After Wideman got back on his skates he appeared to be annoyed by the absence of a penalty called for the hit, and skated towards his team’s bench. On his way to the bench he struck official Don Henderson, who was skating backwards towards the bench area, using his stick which knocked Henderson face-first to the ice giving him a concussion and ending his season. It was later discovered Wideman himself suffered a concussion as a result of the initial hit. After the game, Wideman claimed he hadn’t seen Henderson until it was too late to avoid the conclusion.

On February 2, 2016 the NHL held a hearing with Wideman and the NHL’s Officials Association which was reported to be extremely contentious. This was a result of the NHL’s Officials Association’s fury over the alleged attack and abuse of one of their officials. Originally, the NHL handed down a 20 game suspension which, on its face, seemed like a clear message from the league, but was not actually the maximum penalty Wideman faced. In handing down the suspension it was clear the NHL did not buy Wideman’s argument that he was woozy and stunned as a result of the initial hit and therefore could not get out of the way or grasp what had occurred.

The NHL Players Association appealed the suspension again arguing that Wideman did not and could not fully understand his actions due to the fact he was dazed by his head injury. They elicited two experts to support this opinion and denied any intent to injure Henderson. The NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman affirmed the suspension, discounting the experts and Wideman’s arguments. Then, the NHLPA exercised the union’s collective bargaining rights to a neutral appeal of the suspension because it exceeded six games. The independent arbitrator subsequently reduced the suspension to 10 games siding with Wideman and the union.

The NHL’s complaint asking a New York federal judge to vacate the March 2016 arbitration award is a result of the arbitration ruling. The NHLPA believes the result of neutral appeal with an arbitrator is binding and final making the lawsuit meritless.

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