James Oldham obviously has a résumé that supports the NHL and the NHL players' association's agreeing to use him as a neutral arbitrator, but it's hard to understand the decision to reduce Dennis Wideman's suspension to 10 games.
It looks like maintaining the position of permanent arbitrator requires appeasing both sides, and there's a history to support that argument.
In regard to the Wideman case, the NHL issued a statement Friday to say they "strenuously disagree" with Oldham's ruling and are trying to determine "what next steps may be appropriate."
That means the league could decide to take this matter to federal court or fire Oldham and bring in a new arbitrator. According to a legal expert, the chances that a judge would disrupt the decision of an arbitrator are slim.
In the late '90s and early 2000s, the NHL fired three arbitrators in a three-year span. Lawrence Holden, John Sands and George Nicolau were all dismissed after separate incidents in which their decisions did not favor both sides.
Oldham's decision on the Wideman case seemed confusing, repetitive and contradictory. It was a split-decision that didn't favor either side. The NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman looked at the incident in black and white, in regard to league rules on making contact with officials.
But the arbitrator's decision comes down to the interpretation of the term "deliberate."
In the summary of his decision, Oldham wrote: "Wideman did not, in my opinion, 'deliberately strike' [linesman Don] Henderson. I do not believe that in his concussed state, Wideman could or should have anticipated that his push would cause Henderson to fall and bang his head against the boards sufficiently hard to put Henderson also in a concussed state."
Based on his conclusion, there should have been no disciplining of Wideman.
However, Oldman concluded that the NHL should not have gone beyond the 10-game minimum suspension specified in Rule 40.3, which states that any player who deliberately applies physical force to an official in any manner, when physical force is applied without intent to injure, or who spits on an official shall be automatically suspended for no fewer than 10 games.
Oldham is saying Wideman could not formulate the intent to cause harm because he was concussed, but Wideman could form the process to act deliberately -- even though he was concussed.
Doesn't a deliberate action, by its nature, require some intent?
It wouldn't be a surprise if this is the end of the case. Wideman's suspension has been reduced to 10 games. He will get back $282,258 of the $564,516 he was going to forfeit as a result of the suspension. The NHL saves face with officials because Bettman upheld his original suspension of 20 games before Oldham's decision to reduce it.
The problem with the arbitrator's decision, to me, is that he seems to be deliberately blurring his interpretation of the word "deliberate."