An independent arbitrator cut Dennis Wideman's suspension in half to 10 games Friday after concluding the Calgary Flames defenseman did not intend to injure a linesman when he knocked him to the ice during a game last month.
In an 18-page ruling, arbitrator James Oldham wrote that he agreed with the NHL's decision to suspend Wideman for abusing an official. But he disagreed with Commissioner Gary Bettman's conclusion that there was sufficient evidence to show Wideman deliberately wanted to injure Don Henderson when he hit him during a game against Nashville on Jan. 27.
"My fundamental disagreement with Commissioner Bettman's decision, is that, based on the totality of the evidence presented to me, I do not think that Wideman's behavior was animated by an intent to injure Henderson," Oldham wrote, citing testimony from NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom among others in reaching his decision.
According to the ruling, Walkom said Wideman "was upset, he's skating to the bench, and he made a mistake, and he cross-checked the linesman, and he knocked him to the ice with enough force to hurt him, even though he probably didn't intentionally mean to hurt him."
Because Wideman suffered a concussion seconds earlier on a legal hit from Nashville's Miikka Salomaki, "it is possible, given the speed of events and Wideman's condition, that Henderson may have been but a blurred distraction," Oldham wrote.
Henderson got a concussion of his own from the blindside hit, which Oldham wrote could not be called a cross-check.
Despite a text message Wideman sent to another player saying he was only having a hearing because of "stupid refs and stupid media," Oldham wrote that it didn't represent intent to injure. Oldham revealed that the message was sent to Gregory Campbell, son of NHL senior vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, who originally set the 20-game suspension.
Wideman has already served 19 games as the appeals process went to Bettman and then Oldham. He will get back $282,258 of the $564,516 he was going to forfeit as a result of the suspension and he was eligible to play as early as Friday night at home against Arizona.
The NHL said it "strenuously" disagreed with the decision and was "reviewing the opinion in detail to determine what next steps may be appropriate." The appeal to an independent arbitrator is the finals step of the appeals process, according to the collective bargaining agreement.
The NHL Players Association said it was pleased with the decision.
"Given that it was undisputed that Dennis suffered a concussion mere seconds prior to his collision with linesman Don Henderson, we felt strongly that there should have been no discipline," the union said.
Oldham wrote that Wideman's "exemplary" record without discipline throughout his career played into his decision.
"(Wideman's) disciplinary history is completely clean except for the incident under evaluation. I take this factor to be a positive weight in Wideman's favor," Oldham wrote. "Taking into account Wideman's 11 years of discipline-free performance as a professional hockey player, there is no occasion to go beyond the 10-game minimum."
During a news conference in Calgary, Flames director of hockey operations Brian Burke was calm and eager to give the matter some closure. At one point upset at the length of the appeals process, Burke told reporters that he just wishes it's expedited for the next player who goes through it.
It was the first time a case when to an independent arbitrator since the last CBA was agreed to in 2013.
"I think you have to respect the fact this is uncharted waters for everybody," Burke said. "It was a new process, it's the first time the neutral discipline arbitrator has been involved. To throw rocks at anyone about the length of time it took I think is counterproductive."