James Oldham has been the neutral arbitrator for the NHL and NHLPA for over a decade, hired to preside over grievances concerning the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
But he no longer will. Oldham confirmed to Sports Business Daily’s Liz Mullen that the NHL had dismissed him after he overturned Gary Bettman’s ruling on one of the most controversial cases in NHL disciplinary history: Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension last season for attacking an official.
The NHL and the NHLPA declined comment on Oldham’s termination. The NHL CBA allows both the NHL and NHLPA the right to terminate the neutral discipline arbitrator on July 1 for any reason or no reason. The position is fairly new as the right for players to appeal discipline of more than six games to an arbitrator was a new provision in the ’13 CBA. Oldham, a law professor at Georgetown, served in the position from the summer of ’13 until July 1. The only case he heard was the appeal of Wideman’s suspension, which came after he collided with referee Don Henderson, knocking him down. The NHL last month sued the NHLPA to overturn the decision and reinstate the 20-game punishment.
When the League and the players agreed to a new suspension appeals system in 2013 – giving players who are suspended six or more games the chance to appeal to an arbitrator if Bettman rubber-stamped the suspension his League handed out – Oldham’s role became more prominent. Or, at the very least, we heard his name with more frequency.
His influence, however, wasn’t truly felt until he reduced Wideman’s 20-game suspension for assaulting linesman Don Henderson. Oldham cut the ban, handed out by NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell, down to 10 games.
The NHL argued that the NHLPA failed to establish if the Calgary Flames defenseman had suffered a concussion that caused the behavior, and thus it was a Category 1 offense in which a player “deliberately strikes an official.”
Oldham said that was the wrong conclusion, in his summary statement on the suspension reduction:
The Commissioner’s basic conclusion — that Wideman’s on-ice behavior resulting in Linesman Henderson’s concussion constituted physical abuse of an official calling for Supplemental Discipline for on-ice conduct — was correct. Also, the Commissioner’s use of League Rule 40 (“Physical Abuse of Officials”) as a framework for analysis was appropriate. The Commissioner’s conclusion, however, that Wideman’s behavior constituted intentional action within the meaning of Rule 40.2, automatically triggering a penalty of not less than twenty games, is not endorsed in this appeal because, in my opinion, that conclusion is not substantially supported by the totality of the evidence presented to me at the NDA hearing. In my judgment, the proper penalty should have been that specified in League Rule 40.3. Taking into account Wideman’s eleven years of discipline-free performance as a professional hockey player, there is no occasion to go beyond the ten game minimum specified in Rule 40.3. Dennis Wideman’s penalty, therefore, should be reduced from twenty games to ten games, and it is so ordered.
The League made noise about its “options” after what was supposed to be the final stage of the appeals process, and then in June filed a lawsuit in Manhattan against the NHLPA over the ruling, with Bettman claiming that Oldham “applied his own brand of industrial justice by disregarding the standard of review set forth in the CBA.”
And then Oldham was dismissed.
A couple of things to know here. The first is that arbitrators get fired all the time. It’s part of the gig, especially when one of the parties you’re ruling on has that ability.
That said, this is a rather petty look for the NHL, at first glance.
Which brings us to why Oldham was fired. And it’s here that the NHL would argue that it’s not petty, and that it’s less about the result of the Wideman case – Oldham kicking dirt in the face of Gary Bettman, no less – than the manner in which he arrived at that ruling.
According to the CBA, the Neutral Discipline Arbitrator “shall have the authority to consider any evidence relating to the incident even if such evidence was not available at the time of the initial Supplementary Discipline for On-Ice Conduct decision or at the time of the Commissioner’s decision in connection with the appeal. 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.”
In asking around this week, in light of Oldham’s dismissal, it appears the NHL believes Oldham misapplied the CBA to the Wideman ruling.
The League believes Oldham didn’t have the latitude to look at video of the Wideman incident and make his own factual findings on the case, coming to his own conclusion. The CBA, they believe, establishes a framework where Oldham’s sole responsibility was examining Bettman’s decision and whether it was supported, substantially, by the evidence.
In other words, the NHL claims Oldham’s mandate was to review whether Bettman’s ruling was a sound one, and believes his own “factual finding,” specifically with regard to the video, oversteps his authority.
Oldham would argue that his ruling falls under the Lebowski-esque “new [expletive] came to light, man” provision in the CBA, as NHL director of officiating Steven Walkom offered new testimony that stated:
“My testimony is that he [Wideman] was upset, he’s skating to the bench, and he made a mistake, and he cross-checked the Linesman, and he knocked him to the ice with enough force to hurt him, even though he probably didn’t intentionally mean to hurt him.”
This undercut the case in Oldham’s eyes, even if it was just, like, his opinion, man.
No matter how this turns out, one thing is clear: While it appeared the NHL had acquiesced and gave the players a neutral party “last word” on lengthy suspensions – no longer making Gary Bettman the Supreme Court of hockey discipline – the League still had some cards up its sleeve.
Like suing the players in federal court. And like firing the guy who found in favor of the players, before the next suspension goes to arbitration.