Premeditated or concussed? The curious case of Dennis Wideman

When Calgary defenseman Dennis Wideman laid a nasty cross-check on linesman Don Henderson in a Jan. 27 game, the immediate reaction across hockey circles was shock and outrage. Wideman was heading back to the bench when he encountered Henderson in his path, with his back to Wideman as the linesman watched the play. Wideman then did the exact opposite of what anybody would do in that situation and flattened the defenseless Henderson with a sudden cross-check. If it had been an opposing player who had just hit him, maybe the play would be a little more understandable. But it was the sheer pointlessness of it that had many scratching their heads. The NHL subsequently suspended Wideman for 20 games, which he said he will appeal, arguing that the hit was unavoidable.

Of course, there’s more to the story. Moments before the fateful hit, Wideman had been slammed hard into the glass, and he looked woozy after he sat on the bench. A league “concussion spotter” noticed Wideman’s seeming symptoms and recommended he be sent to the designated “quiet room” for observation per the NHL’s concussion policy. However, Wideman refused to go to the room and continued to play in the game. There shouldn’t have been any debate; the policy requires that a player deemed to be possibly concussed must be removed from the game. But the Flames’ staff didn’t force Wideman to go and the player finished out the game. It will be interesting to see how this plays out during the appeal process if allegations are made that the team was responsible in any way for allowing Wideman back out on the ice.

There have cases where players have inadvertently hit officials in the middle of a scrum, but only a handful where the contact has been intentional. The Wideman incident reminds me of Tom Lysiak, a star forward in the ’70s and ’80s with the Atlanta Flames and Chicago Blackhawks, who received a 20-game suspension in 1983 after he tripped linesman Ron Foyt. Lysiak had grown frustrated after being tossed by Foyt from the faceoff circle several times and finally he ignored the play and jabbed Foyt behind the knee, causing him to fall to the ice. Lysiak received a game misconduct and then after the game, referee Dave Newell levied the suspension, invoking the recently passed Rule 67A; the rule applies a 20-game suspension to any player who “deliberately applies physical force” to an official. The rule itself was created after criticism of lax penalties after incidents involving referee Andy van Hellemond during the 1981-82 season: Paul Holmgren of the Flyers received a 5-game suspension for punching van Hellemond in the chest early in the season and Terry O’Reilly of the Bruins was suspended for 10 games for slapping the ref during a playoff game.

Lysiak sued the league to be allowed to file an appeal, but the NHL Board of Governors upheld the suspension amid threats of a walkout by officials if the suspension was reduced. At the time, the 20-game ban was one of the longest in league history. Nowadays, of course, the league itself hands down suspensions instead of on-ice officials.

Whatever happens with Wideman’s case, there will be plenty of interested parties (the NHL officials’ union, the NHLPA, teams, fans, media) watching very closely.

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