The NHL seeks a judicial review in a lawsuit against the NHLPA in New York district court over a neutral discipline arbitrator's decision to reduce the 20-game suspension the league placed on Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman. The league alleges that the arbitrator, James Oldham, exceeded his authority under the collective bargaining agreement when he reduced Wideman's suspension to 10 games.
Wideman was initially suspended for delivering a blow to linesman Don Henderson during a January 27 game against the Nashville Predators. The league initially issued a 20-game ban for physical abuse of an official, citing that Wideman deliberately struck Henderson, who had a concussion and other injuries from the incident. That decision was appealed to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who upheld the initial decision levied by vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell. The NHLPA then appealed the case to the neutral arbitrator.
By the time the process was complete, Wideman had already sat out 19 of the 20 games of the suspension. The arbitrator's decision did get Wideman some of the salary back that he would have had to forfeit.
Despite Wideman serving almost all of his time of the suspension, the league clearly doesn't want to see a precedent set with this decision from the arbitrator. However, it is pretty surprising to see the league drop a lawsuit on the players' association a day before the first clinching game of the Stanley Cup Final.
According to TSN.ca, a NHLPA spokesman said the NHL's lawsuit was "completely without merit." The CBA states that a Neutral Discipline Arbitrator's decision is final. However, the league feels that the arbitrator violated the rules within the CBA, rendering the decision invalid, which is why they're exercising the only option they have left to get this overturned.
According to papers filed by the league in U.S. district court Wednesday (which can be read in full here), the league claims that Oldham exceeded his authority and "applied his own brand of industrial justice by disregarding the standard of review set forth in the CBA." According to the league, its CBA with the NHLPA states that the arbitrator's review is to be limited to whether Bettman's decision is supported by "substantial evidence."
The league alleges that Oldham substituted his own version of what happened in the Wideman incident and that the arbitrator's role requires "considerable deference to the Commissioner." As a result, the league asked that the arbitrator's decision be vacated and Bettman's ruling reinstated.
UPDATE: The NHL released the following statement from deputy commissioner Bill Daly on the legal action taken by the league Wednesday:
"We can confirm that the National Hockey League today filed an action in the federal district court for the Southern District of New York seeking to vacate Arbitrator James Oldham's arbitration decision reducing the League's supplementary discipline suspension to Player Dennis Wideman from 20 to 10 games. We believe that Arbitrator Oldham, in reaching his decision, exceeded his contractual authority by failing to properly apply the parties' collectively bargained standard of review. Today's action was motivated primarily by our regard for the collective bargaining process and the importance of maintaining and safeguarding the parties' reasonable expectations arising from the agreements made in that process. The timing of today's filing was dictated exclusively by the requirements of the federal rules governing these actions. We do not intend to offer any further comment pending the conclusion of the court's review."
While the league clearly has its own interests at heart here, this also looks like it is going to bat for its officials. The NHL Officials Association expressed outrage at Oldham's decision to reduce the punishment soon after the decision came down.
"The message in reducing the suspension that is sent to NHL players as well as athletes all over the world, including children, is that the code of conduct against officials has changed," read the NHLOA's statement at the time.
The injuries Henderson sustained kept him out for the remainder of the season and he may not return to the NHL. Meanwhile, Wideman appeared in three games after serving his time before suffering an injury of his own that cost him additional games.
It will be interesting to see where this goes, but clearly the league has no interest in simply moving on from this decision, especially as it involves such a high-profile incident that brought negative attention to the league.