In March 2016, a neutral arbitrator reduced Dennis Wideman’s suspension for striking Don Henderson from 20 games to 10 games. A determination to which the NHL ‘strenuously’ disagreed.
Nearly three months after the decision was handed down, the NHL has filed suit against the NHLPA to nullify the decision by the arbitrator.
Through a league spokesman, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly offered comment that broadly addresses the nature of the suit:
“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.”
Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NHL and the NHLPA, all disciplinary matters along the lines of Wideman’s are subject to several layers of appeals.
After Senior VP of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell handed down the 20 game ban, Wideman and the NHLPA immediately filed an appeal with the Commissioner in the first level of the process. Two weeks later, Commissioner Bettman upheld the suspension in a 22 page opinion.
Once again, Wideman and the NHLPA immediately appealed to the next level with a neutral arbitrator.
A couple important things to keep in mind. First, the appellate process was agreed upon by the NHL and the NHLPA during CBA negotiations. Second, when the two sides go to a neutral arbitrator, it is considered ‘binding arbitration.’ Meaning the dispute is kept out of court but the decision is generally legally enforceable.
Just shy of a month after Bettman issued his decision, Arbitrator James Oldham came out with his. Oldham reduced the suspension to 10 games.
What the NHL is taking issue with in the suit is how Oldham came to his judgment.
The neutral discipline arbitrator (or NDA) was to review the Commissioner’s opinion and find if it followed the evidence as it was laid out. From the CBA:
The highlighted part is the most important as it is what the NHL is arguing before the court.
The NHL alledges the arbitrator added his own opinion to come to a different judgement which was not his obligation. He had to decide if the Commissioner’s decision was supported or not supported by the evidence overall.
From the court documents provided by Eriq Gardner of The Hollywood Reporter:
Basically, it’s a suit over procedure by the arbitrator with many questions for the court to consider.
Did Oldham overstep his bounds in the way he came to the decision that Wideman’s suspension should be reduced? Did he interpret his decision making capacity incorrectly? Did he in fact decide whether or not the Commissioner’s decision was supported by the evidence?
The language in the CBA is broad and is up for interpretation. Whether a judge will hear the case is the next hurdle for the NHL.
The NHLPA is quick to point out as much in their statement on the suit:
“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.”