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Wideman Episode Finds The NHL Unprepared On A Number Of Fronts

They say justice delayed is justice denied. If you believe that old axiom then Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman was in big denial after the treatment he received from the NHL over his 20-game suspension. When word finally— finally!— came down this past week that the suspension had been cut to 10 games by an independent arbitrator, he’d already served 19 games of the original sentence. 

There is enough fail to go around on this file. First, Wideman’s behaviour was doltish. Allowing that he was dinged from being smashed into the boards, aggressively shoving linesman Don Henderson from behind was still impulsive and very risky. (Some have tried to say Henderson should have kept an eye on Wideman, having seen he was likely to be upset after betting hammered into the boards. But, man, that’s harsh.) Wideman has only himself to blame.

Once Wideman made it to the bench, someone needed to override Wideman’s desire to stay in the game. He should have been sent back to the dressing room for evaluation. For whatever reasons, the coaches and staff deferred to the veteran defenceman who re-entered play. Not a great idea.

While Bettman decried the decision, a cynic would suggest he got the best of both worlds— he placated referees by sidelining Wideman 19 games. But he also got a benchmark he can use to reduce such sentences when an owner loses his mind over losing a key player for 20 games.

Going back on the ice created all sorts of issues. First, it opened the Flames to charges (right or wrong) they let a concussed player stay in play. Second, it shot holes in Wideman’s defence of being out of his senses when he hit Henderson. Like I said, not a great idea.

Once the game was over commissioner Gary Bettman had to know that the NHL referees union would be pushing for the harshest penalty possible. He didn’t disappoint with the 20-game penalty (on a player who’d never been disciplined before). He based his opinion on premeditation, which was fanciful at best. But when you ask a commissioner to weigh office politics into a legal decision what you often get is a camel not a horse. 

Thanks to the work of Bob Goodenow when he became director of the NHL Players Association in 1992, players have the right to independent arbitration after decades of kangaroo courts convened by NHL presidents and commissioners. Wideman availed himself of that right— on February 17. But the appeal took till mid-March before the decision was announced— well after it could help Wideman (besides refunding some missed salary). 

While Bettman decried the decision, a cynic would suggest he got the best of both worlds— he placated referees by sidelining Wideman 19 games. But he also got a benchmark he can use to reduce such sentences when an owner loses his mind over losing a key player for 20 games. 

Fingers have been pointed in many directions for the mess. The Flames don’t want to impugn Bettman, and the player wants another contract so he's gone to ground. Referees wanting to get playoff assignments muzzled themselves. So most of the bitching has been OTR. The outcome exposed the appeal process and we can expect serious work on improving the speed of frozen justice.

But it might have more far-reaching impact: the placement of neutral medical people at bench during game. As Wideman’s intransigence has shown team personnel are often unable to protect players from themselves. The NFL has already instituted this measure, with blue-hatted observers placed on the sidelines during games with power to order a player to concussion protocol. 

Such a person could have gotten Wideman to the dressing room, protected the league’s reputation for concussion safety and made the initial suspension more reflective of a single rash action against a league official. The NHL has a model. Will they use it? Or will we have to wait till the next CBA in 2019?

We always knew the $5.2 billion gamble by Rogers on the NHL national TV contract was going to require a little luck. There has been lots of luck. All of it poor. The loonie (the contract is paid in U.S. dollars) dropped precipitously. The seven Canadian teams have plummeted to the point where none will make the playoffs— and  the majority of the TV advertising revenues are found in the postseason. The Edmonton wunderkind Connor McDavid was out for an extended period of time in the middle of the season. Finally, the current style of play has left many fans blasé about the NHL. 

The ratings results have become disastrous. Where the first game of a Hockey Night In Canada Saturday could get 2- 2.5 million and the doubleheader game attract one million, the opener is fortunate to garner a million and the second game half that. Rogers’ extra-games coverage on Saturday has affected numbers somewhat, but advertisers aren’t buying. Similarly, weekday games have seen Toronto as low as half a million fans, Vancouver games slump to 300 K and Calgary slip below 100 K viewers.

The All-Star game had its worst numbers this century (outside lockout years) and the trade-deadline programs were a snore that the public avoided.

With the prospect of a financial blood bath ahead, Rogers wants to cut back on production costs in the postseason. But the NHL has forbidden it. Rogers suits believed the deal would turn the corner by Year 4 of the contract, but as last week’s culling of familiar on-air faces (James Cybulski, Jamie Thomas, Hugh Burril) and many off-air production people shows, new Rogers execs such as Guy Laurence and Rick Brace aren’t waiting to trim their costs. 

Perhaps the only solace for Rogers is that the Blue Jays were a license to print money last year. If they duplicate that success in 2016 it might mitigate some sting. But that— and the fact that rival TSN is suffering as much— is cold comfort with another decade of this hyper-expensive NHL contract ahead.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy

Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).