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NHL's Wideman suspension explanation exposes broken concussion protocol

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The NHL's suspension video for Dennis Wideman unveils a broken system.

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

After days of speculation, Calgary Flames defensemen Dennis Wideman has been suspended 20 games without pay by the NHL, for Physical Abuse of an Official under Rule 40.

The suspension stems from a play on January 27 in a game against the Nashville Predators when, after sustaining a hit from Preds forward Miikka Salomaki, Wideman skated to the bench and knocked linesman Don Henderson to the ice from behind. He will, as a result, potentially forfeit US$564,516 (or CAD$775,814) -- the NHLPA has appealed the suspension.

And while there is no doubt the league has to take abuse of officials seriously, the NHL's suspension explainer (video available below) exposed a flawed, arguably ignorant system.

In it, the league started by placing onus on Wideman to do or not do several things that led to the resultant suspension.

First, the league insisted that "instead of stopping, or otherwise taking steps to avoid the collision, Wideman raises his stick and proceeds to aggressively cross-check a vulnerable and unsuspecting Henderson."

Second, according to Rule 40.2, "Any player who deliberately strikes an official and causes injury or who deliberately applies force in any manner against an official with intent to injure, or who in any manner attempts to injure an official, shall be automatically suspended for not less than 20 games," where "for the purpose of the rule, 'intent to injure' shall mean any physical force which a player knew or should have know could reasonably be expected to cause injury," instilled a few burdens on the player (in this case Wideman). They are: That he not apply deliberate force. That that force not have been reasonably known or expected to cause injury, something the NHL later insisted he "should have known."

Third, the NHL places onus on Wideman for, after suffering a concussion, repeatedly refusing medical attention and remaining in the game.

And while the NHL acknowledged that, "It is accepted for the purposes of this decision that he was later diagnosed with having suffered a concussion," they insisted that "that fact, even accepted as true, could not have excused Wideman's actions."

This is all qualified by the fact that Wideman "appears to get up slowly from a check," his "claim that he was disoriented," and another insistence that "Wideman still cannot be excused from the nature and severity of the offence" no matter "if this was an isolated out of character lapse in judgment" for a player with an acknowledged "exemplary NHL career."

Can a player act deliberately with a concussion?

But these clauses don't stack up against each other, and willfully ignore both parts of the footage and the science inherent in what we know to be true about concussions. While there is no doubt that any player who deliberately strikes or intends to injure an official ought to be heavily punished, the rule and the league's interpretation of it appears to ignore that not all circumstances are created equal.

If it is true that the NHL truly does accept that he suffered a concussion, as the video states, then it can't be said with the absolute certainty they use that he was deliberate or should have known that he could injure Henderson.

We know it to be true that, after suffering a concussion (or even a hit to the head or sub-concussive blow), that it can create disorientation, blurred vision, lack of depth perception, a feeling of out of sorts, a dip in reaction time, and an inability to quickly decide between right and wrong. By insisting that this 'fact' could not excuse Wideman's 'actions', the NHL ignores the potential that the shove wasn't in fact of his own making, while contradicting its assertion that the concussion is understood and that he was slow to rise off the ice.

Similarly, the NHL appears to dismiss Wideman's assertion that he was disoriented by labeling it as a claim. Again, if the NHL is to rightfully stand by it's acknowledgement that he was in fact diagnosed with a concussion, then to what extent does that medical evaluation refute that he was disoriented (a known scientific effect)? This polarizing position is reaffirmed when, despite demonstrating an appearance that all factors were considered by referring to Wideman as an "exemplary" player who had suffered a concussion, the league refers to the incident as an "out of character lapse in judgement."

Can we trust the league to evaluate Wideman?

The situation is put into a context where it is treated like all other situations of this nature. The NHL is right in saying that knocking a ref to the ice from behind is a lapse in judgement, but this ignores the other factors that the league claims to have considered -- including the brain's inability to process information and act on it following a blow to the head.

This dichotomy isn't surprising -- the NHL has a responsibility to protect its officials -- but it speaks not only to a concussion protocol that places blame on the player for staying in the game but also willfully eliminates circumstances at an establishment level under the guise of the oft-used legal idea of what is "reasonable." It becomes difficult to trust this evaluation of what is reasonable when a league predicated on protecting its officials rules with an air of absolute certainty that a post-concussive reaction was "no accident."

And while the league may have had no choice, in order to avoid setting an equally distressing precedent for a player's post-hit actions, it has only itself to blame for the language it used both in its rules and it's judgment. If nothing else, there exists a need for further reform of the protocol and education of those ruling on suspensions when their health is in question.

But this might not come. In theory, the appeal process (once to the league and then again to a third party if the suspension still exceeds six games) is in place to allow for some grey area that exists in a play like this. But if the league will place the blame on Wideman for staying in the game, then the system in turn protects itself from itself -- and the team doctors.

That Wideman never entered the protocol is a fault placed on his shoulders -- ignoring that he and other future players who suffer hits to the head may not be capable of making an informed decision on their health. By doing so, team doctors, who aren't independently involved in the decision-making process to begin with, are exonerated from responsibility for potentially incapacitated players. As a result, Wideman will be disadvantaged in his appeal for the lack of concrete knowledge of his state during the game because he wasn't pulled.

While the league has left themselves no choice, their appeal process may not actually provide the player a fair shot at providing proper evidence that there may not have been "intent to injure" or that the "no excuse" mantra doesn't necessarily hold up as it was indisputably presented.

Does Rule 40.2 even leave open room to use things like "no history" as real factors in deciding on what is an automatic 20-game suspension regardless?