Originally published Oct. 7, 2018. Being re-published because he keeps doing it – Managing Editor
It’s about time. Finally. Spot on. Justice served. That’s the prevailing sentiment heard around the hockey world when news came of Washington Capitals’ right winger Tom Wilson receiving a 20-game suspension.
Unlike the devastating hit he laid on St. Louis Blues center Oskar Sundqvist in the second period of the teams’ exhibition game last Sunday, the bruising 6-foot-4, 217-pounder should’ve seen the verdict coming. It was exactly the type of hit that does not belong in the game anymore.
Wilson’s Latest Hit
Sundqvist came up the wing with the puck and was making a move across the blue line when Wilson delivered the high blow, snapping his head and torquing his body as he drove through him and spun him around with all his might. After sustaining the hit, Sundqvist didn’t get up off the ice for a few minutes, his face bloodied.
The hit was not warranted in a meaningless preseason game in September. Perhaps Wilson was honing his skill for beheading and dismantling his opponents this upcoming season. The bigger question is: why is such a hit in the game at all? Wilson clearly hasn’t learned his lesson. Nor has the league punished him enough to make him think twice about it.
Wilson, a repeat offender, drew a 10-minute penalty for the hit on Sundqvist. Clean or not, the hit was 100% unnecessary and avoidable. The onus and responsibility is always on the player delivering the hit to make it clean. Wilson did not. The Capitals forward targeted his head area, fully knowing and expecting the contact to happen. It was a blindside illegal hit to the head.
Though not enough, the 20-game suspension was a start. It shouldn’t have taken this long for Wilson to properly suffer the consequences his actions.
A History of Hurt
It’s time for Wilson to stop pretending like he will change. The suspension is Wilson’s fourth in less than 13 months. This one will cost him nearly a quarter of the 82-game regular season and $1.26 million in salary. The Capitals forward was suspended four preseason games, two regular season games, and three playoff games last season.
As the NHL video states, “…this is Wilson’s fourth suspension in his last 105 games, an unprecedented frequency of suspensions in the history of the Department of Player Safety.”
Players like Wilson don’t want to change. It’s what got them into the league. If the wrecking ball on skates didn’t play dirty enough to create space by making other players afraid that he might permanently injure them, he would never have made it this far. After all, he doesn’t have enough skill at either end of the rink to be playing in the league, he cannot effectively play on special teams, and he doesn’t take faceoffs.
Other Unworthy Notable Hits
Last season, Wilson’s stalking blindside hit on Alexander Wennberg of the Columbus Blue Jackets went unpunished by the league office.
Then, in Game 2 of the Capitals series with the Penguins, Wilson delivered a hit to the head of Brian Dumoulin. No penalty was assessed, nor did the NHL deem it worthy of a suspension. It is worth noting that Dumoulin left the game and did not return.
There was Wilson’s nasty blow to Pittsburgh Penguins’ Zach Auston-Reese in Game 3 of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was a calculated headshot with no sudden movement by Reese. Wilson could have avoided it, but instead made the decision to target his head with his shoulder while leaving his feet for extra punishment. Reese suffered a concussion and a broken jaw. While Wilson was not assessed a penalty on the play, he was later suspended three games.
Perhaps even worse than the hit itself, Wilson laughed after the hit, amused with himself as Aston-Reese struggled to leave the ice. It was caught on the arena’s jumbotron and on television. It’s disrespectful of the game itself.
“You don’t laugh at somebody getting hurt. You just… you don’t do that,” said Penguin Kris Letang.
Had the league of denial made the right call in game 2 with Wilson’s hit to the head on Doumilin, Reese’s jaw would be in tact & he wouldn’t be suffering from a traumatic brain injury. He is now at risk for early on set #Alzheimers #dementia #parkinsons #tbi #cte @NHLPlayerSafety
— Daniel Carcillo (@CarBombBoom13) May 2, 2018
Wilson doesn’t hit the breaks or swerve to avoid destruction of his opponent, he accelerates and targets their head. It’s disgraceful. Just ask Vegas Golden Knight forward Jonathan Marchessault, New York Islander defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, Philadelphia Flyer forward Brayden Schenn, New Jersey Devils forward Brian Gibbons, and Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell to name a few.
Times Have Changed
There was a time when a player knocked out another with a big hit and was heralded. Nailing a defenseless player and cleaning his clock often earned ‘street cred’ and made highlight reels. Now that the long-term effects of concussions and repeated hits to the head are well-documented, there’s no place for headhunting in the game today. There can be protection and intimidation without injury. It’s no longer the anything-goes 1970s or 1980s old days when players policed themselves.
Tom Wilson just doesn’t understand today’s hockey. It’s as if he can’t help himself. You’d think he was an old-time grinder or sandpaper role player, but he’s not. Wilson is a 24-year-old that often plays on the team’s first line with superstar Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. His 187 penalty minutes ranked second in the league last year.
Physicality is fine and intrinsically is part of hockey, but if Wilson has to play outside the legal boundaries of the game to be successful, he shouldn’t be playing in the league.
To those that say, “it’s a contact sport… things happen.” That’s no excuse, and get with the times.
For the past few years, he hasn’t been blurring the line of what’s right or wrong, he’s been recklessly driving through it with regularity, either with his shoulder positioned squarely into the face of his unsuspecting, defenseless peers or into their numbers as he sends them helplessly into the boards. He’s been delivering predatory, blindside hits and causing injury with consistency.
Parros Answers the Bell
As a player, George Parros was a feared fighter who played the game hard. He routinely stepped in and protected his teammates when an opponent crossed the line. He racked up 1,092 penalty minutes in 474 career games played. He fought 159 times. Despite his mean streak, Parros was never fined or suspended.
Now, as an executive with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, he’s continuing to police those who do wrong. His 20-game suspension clearly sends a strong message that enough is enough. It’s the longest suspension handed out since 2015 (Raffi Torres, 41 games).
Department of Player Safety Explanation
The Department of Player Safety can levy a combination of fines and suspensions to help change player behavior. Their goal is to make the game safer while keeping it physical.
“Our mission statement is to keep physicality in the game,” said Parros. “I’m not trying to get anybody to stop body-checking. Or even if you want to be a pest out there or send a message, there’s ways you can do that. But we don’t like guys being put in vulnerable positions and hurting each other. So when we see that, that’s what this department is all about, is trying to curb that.”
With videos circulated to teams and with video explanations, the department has attempted to provide both education and transparency for their standards and rulings. Their consistency is often up for debate.
“If you put yourself in a vulnerable position at the last minute, there’s not much we can do,” said the former enforcer. “If … all of a sudden you change your position last second, that’s going to be tough. So we’ve got to make sure guys understand this.”
Making an Example out of Himself
Since Tom Wilson entered the NHL in 2013, he’s played 391 games and has amassed 806 penalty minutes. The bigger, more telling statistic is that he’s scored 35 goals and has been suspended 29 games. Let that sink in for a moment. He’s only scored six more goals than the number of games he’s been suspended.
Most of Wilson’s penalty minutes are from intent-to-injure major penalties or suspensions. Brandon Schlager wrote, “As of the start of the 2018-19 season, no player in the NHL has been penalized more since Wilson entered the league in 2013. Of his 255 penalties (regular season only) during that span, roughly 20 percent have been majors (58). They add up to 806 minutes, including 11 misconducts and a match penalty. Only two other players (Antoine Roussel and Cody McLeod at 707) have more than 600 penalty minutes. Again, these figures don’t even include his postseason misbehavior.”
“I think it’s unfortunate for Tom that the league is making an example out of him,” said teammate T.J. Oshie.
Bologna. If Wilson wasn’t consistently behaving like a predatory, head-hunting animal, this conversation wouldn’t even be taking place. The decision to levy a suspension to Wilson was long overdue. It took Parros, acting as the discipline czar he once was on the ice, to protect the league and its players while off it. Inaction from league officials and the nuanced rules that determine which predatory hits are illegal and legal has kept Wilson on the ice.
The suspensions aren’t teaching him because his barbaric and illegal actions just earned him a huge new contract: six years at $5.166 million annually. He’s a forward who sees time on his team’s top line yet has averaged less than seven goals per year for his six years in the league. His contract pays just a bit less than Norris contender Seth Jones and about the same as Ondrej Palat of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings, Tory Krug of the Boston Bruins and Mike Hoffman of the Florida Panthers. The Capitals’ management team effectively said “keep playing like a hired felon because we’re going to cover your suspension fines in advance.”
A few months ago, Tom Wilson was carrying the Stanley Cup around. These days, he’s carrying the consequences of a player that still hasn’t learned to play the game right way, by the rules. The hit was avoidable. It doesn’t belong in the game. And neither does he.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”