Thursday, February 18, 2016

Bettman Shreds NHLPA's Appeal on Wideman Suspension

Fortunately for Dennis Wideman and the Calgary Flames, the NHL's new collective bargaining agreement gives Wideman the right to appeal his 20-game suspension to an independent arbitrator. Because Wideman and the NHLPA had their appeal absolutely shredded by Gary Bettman and the NHL today. Will they have better luck with an independent arbitrator? Based on what we've read and heard today, maybe not.

On Wednesday Bettman and the NHL released a 23-page report which itemizes all the ways in which the NHLPA's appeal to reduce Wideman's 20-game suspension was unsatisfactory. This was by no means a no-brainer for Bettman from the moment that the idea that Wideman was concussed and therefore cognitively impaired during the moments leading up to his abusive hit on official Don Henderson was introduced into the debate.

But the NHLPA failed to use testimony from anyone on the Flames medical staff, and instead opted for two outside experts--neuropsychologist Dr. Paul Comper and neurologist Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher. This introduced a time lag into the testimony. Instead of offering the opinions of experts who were on the scene and who witnessed Wideman's mental and physical state as the incident unfolded, the NHLPA was only able to cull together after-the-fact interviews and assessments from experts in the field.

Note: Bettman's notes on this specifically make clear the implicit fact that Flames staff made critical mistakes in their decision to not remove Wideman from the game and to not diagnose his concussion state immediately. If there was a chance at a reduction from Bettman, it would have had to come from the club's staff--not hired hands who specialize in expert testimony.

Here's what Bettman wrote about Comper and Kutcher's findings:

"As discussed in greater detail below, the conclusions expressed by Dr. Comper and Dr. Kutcher were not based on what Mr. Wideman's capacity actually was at the time in question but about what his condition might have been. Those conclusions were based on little more than Mr. Wideman's own subjective report of concussion symptoms that he may or may not have actually experienced. The testimony was internally inconsistent in several respects, hedged or vague in other respects and largely belied by what is plainly visible on the video."

And here's a snippet of the transcript, from the report:

Q. And you would agree with me that Mr. Wideman certainly had, at least potentially, the motive to exaggerate his symptoms in order to obtain a report that said he wasn't responsible for his actions, that's at least a possibility, isn't it?

Dr Comper: It's a possibility.

Q. and you didn't discuss that in your report, did you?

Dr. Comper: No.

And here's Bettman on what the NHLPA could have done to make a stronger case:

"Neither the NHLPA nor its expert witnesses presented (or even sought) any corroboration for the contention that Mr. Wideman's seemingly intentional actions were in fact the product of a "confused" state. As noted above, Drs. Comper and Kutcher both simply took what Mr. Wideman told them at face value. They could have, but did not, seek to corroborate his statements by speaking with the Club's medical trainer, who was not consulted by either Dr. Comper or Dr. Kutcher or asked by the NHLPA to testify at the hearing about Mr. Wideman's supposed "confusional state."

Editor's Note: Was it an egregious oversight by Comper and Kutcher to avoid talking to the club's medical trainer or did they skip doing so because they knew doing so would have weakened their case, not strengthened it?

To the notion that Wideman really didn't "know what he was doing," Bettman provides a stern rebuttal of that theory also.

"The trainer's notes provided to Drs. Comper and Kutcher do not contain anything to indicate that Mr. Wideman was confused when he returned to the bench or at any point thereafter. While the trainer's notes state that Mr. Wideman was 'hit in second period, felt unbalanced going to bench [and] was cleared in a few minutes,' Dr. Kutcher testified that Mr. Wideman was not suffering from motor incoordination at the time he struck Mr. Henderson. Mr. Wideman continued to the bench without stumbling or exhibiting any other sign of imbalance immediately before or after the collision. The only person who fell on impact was Mr. Henderson."

Wideman wants the NHL to believe that he was not registering and that his hit was an "accident." But he also made statements that contradict that.

"In any event, the references by both doctors to Mr. Wideman's "confusion" are not supported by the narrative that Mr. Wideman provided or by the objective evidence provided by the video footage. Although Mr. Wideman did tell Dr. Comper that he was "not registering," he also said that he knew he had to get to the bench and that he was "focused" on getting there. Mr. Wideman testified at the hearing that "I knew I wasn't right. I knew I was injured, and I knew I had to get off the ice." He knew all of that within an instant of the Salomaki hit. I do not accept the proposition that Mr. Wideman "knew" all of that without also knowing that he could not cross-check the linesman, particularly in light of the fact that Mr. Wideman skated directly to the bench with his head up and gave no indication that he was confused (e. g. , he did not hesitate, he did not skate in the wrong direction, or to the wrong bench or to the penalty box).

"Along the way, he lifted his stick and tapped it on the ice to signal a line change to his bench. (Mr. Wideman acknowledged that video of the incident shows Calgary defenseman T. J. Brodie climbing over the boards in response. Mr. Wideman recognized Mr. Henderson as an on-ice official. He also told Dr. Comper (and testified at the hearing) that he realized that he was going to hit Mr. Henderson just before he did so and that he attempted to get out of the way, thus undermining Dr. Kutcher's suggestion that he experienced "situational unawareness."

If we are to believe this report, Wideman wasn't as cognitively impaired as he, the Flames or the NHLPA would like us to believe. Keep in mind the NHL has a precedent to set here as well. Surely they don't want to send a message to the players that extreme violence can be pardoned if a concussion has occurred on a preceding play. It's simply too dangerous of a tack to take.

Bettman concludes:

"In sum, I find that the expert testimony presented on behalf of the Player was speculative, at times contradictory, lacked support and was wholly insufficient to rebut the clear and convincing evidence provided by the video footage of the incident."

It may sound harsh, but Bettman's report provides clarity to a situation that had grown vague with all the debate swirling around this case. It takes us back to our original, objective appraisal of Wideman's act of violence. Wideman committed an egregious act of violence against an innocent official who had his back turned to him. It's not acceptable, it wasn't an accident, and the punishment fits the crime.