Let’s get this straight before we go any further: hockey fans don’t do nuance.
Oh, make no mistake, we like to argue. These days, it’s pretty much all we seem to do. Throw out a topic – a contending team’s chances, a star player’s legacy, the color of the sky – and we’ll drop the rhetorical gloves and clear the benches.
But what we don’t do is shades of grey. John Scott’s all-star appearance was either the greatest thing to ever happen or an unmitigated disgrace. Gary Bettman is either a mustache-twirling supervillain or a misunderstood genius. Any questionable hit is either squeaky clean or grounds for a lifetime ban. The middle ground? That’s for suckers.
And that’s what made the Dennis Wideman case so fascinating. On Thursday, the NHL handed out its punishment for Wideman: 20 games. For once, we were right: there was no middle ground. There couldn’t be.
Here’s the background, in case you need to get caught up. Last Wednesday, midway through a game between the Flames and Predators, Wideman collected the puck in his own zone. He played it up to a teammate, then took a hit from Nashville’s Miikka Salomaki. It wasn’t a big hit, but it caught the Flames’ defenseman off balance, spinning him and appearing to bounce his head off the glass.
Wideman got up, looking momentarily shaken, and headed for the bench on a line change. Seconds before arriving, he suddenly seemed to launch himself into linesman Don Henderson, using his stick to shove the official from behind and send him to the ice (and eventually, to the hospital).
After the game, Wideman pleaded innocent, explaining that he simply hadn’t seen Henderson until it was too late to avoid a collision. There’s some evidence to support that; Wideman’s stutter-step right before contact suggests he’d been caught him off guard. Others wonder if he hadn’t been knocked woozy by Salomaki’s hit and somehow confused Henderson for an opponent.
So was it intentional? On the one hand, there’s no history that we know of between Wideman and Henderson, no especially controversial calls in this game or any other. There’s simply no conceivable reason why Wideman would pick that moment to attack an official. On the other hand … well, go back and watch the clip again. If that’s not an intentional cross-check, it’s a darn good impression of one. It’s nice to establish a motive, but you don’t need one for a conviction when you’ve got the crime captured in slow motion and high-def.