The National Hockey League has filed a suit seeking to reinstate the 20-game suspension handed out to Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman that was later reduced to 10 games upon appeal to independent arbitrator James Oldham.
When the decision came down back in March, the league released a statement saying that it “strenuously disagreed” with the ruling and that they would be “reviewing the opinion in detail to determine what steps may be appropriate.”
It appears they’ve determined that next step.
The league argues that Oldham “exceeded his authority under the CBA and applied his own brand of industrial justice by disregarding the standard set forth in the CBA. The NDA conducted a de novo review of Mr. Wideman’s suspension whereas the CBA provides explicitly that the NDA’s review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner’s decision on supplementary discipline is supported by ‘substantial evidence.'”
Per Section 18.13 (c) of the CBA:
The NDA [Neutral Discipline Arbitrator] shall hold an in-person hearing and shall determine whether the final decision of the League regarding whether the Player’s conduct violated the League Playing Rules and whether the length of the suspension imposed were supported by substantial evidence.
The NDA shall have full remedial authority in respect of the matter should he/she determine that the Commissioner’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The NDA’s decision shall be final and binding in all respects and not subject to review.
The NHL feels that the NDA’s role, as defined in the CBA, was to determine whether a reasonable person would have agreed with the commissioner’s decision based on the evidence presented, and not to establish his own opinion and review the case anew.
“The NDA overturned the Commissioner’s Order,” the NHL claims, “because his opinion differed from that of the Commissioner, not because the Commissioner’s Order was not supported by substantial evidence.”
The league cites numerous instances in Oldham’s decision that illustrate use of his own interpretations rather than validating the evidence used to support those from the commissioner.
“Time and again, rather than adhering to the limits of his authority,” the court papers said, Oldham “substituted his ‘own version’ of events instead of analyzing whether there was ‘substantial evidence’ supporting the commissioner’s decision to affirm Mr. Wideman’s suspension.”
Wideman was suspended 20 games for hitting linesman Don Henderson from behind. The suspension was upheld by commissioner Gary Bettman after an appeal by the Players’ Association. The NHLPA then took their case to an arbitrator, who, after lengthy deliberation, reduced the suspension 10 games.
Wideman’s suspension was reduced after Oldham felt that there was no intent to injure on the play, shifting the effective rule from 40.2 to 40.3, which carries a lesser minimum charge.
Wideman had served the 19 of his initial 20-game suspension when the arbitrator’s decision came in to reduce his sentence, making him eligible to return to play immediately with his lost salary reinstated for nine of those games. Wideman played in just three games before suffering a season-ending tricep injury.
Henderson has not yet returned to the ice.
It’s not about money, but about the appeals process, as NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement released by the league:
“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.”
The NHL Players’ Association released a statement of their own.
“We are disappointed that the NHL has chosen to challenge the award of the Neutral Discipline Arbitrator (NDA) in court, as the collective bargaining agreement clearly provides that the decision of the NDA is final. We are confident this action is completely without merit and that the court will agree.”
The NHLPA’s argument is valid and supported by Section 18.13 (c) of the CBA. The NHL is not contesting that part. Their charge is that the decision reached by the NDA was not done so in accordance with the scope of his authority as defined in the CBA.
The paperwork has been filed. Both sides have made statements. The next step will be for a judge to agree to hear the case.
Now, as with the Wideman hearing and subsequent appeals, we wait.