“Enforcers”, “goons”, “tough guys” have been in hockey since the 1930s and have been an accepted part of the game. Now things have changed. Is this the time for Washington Capitals’ Tom Wilson to step up and become more than just an “enforcer”. Yes!
When a “Goon” Stops Being a “Goon”
Everyone knows the joke: “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out”. It’s funny and yet it’s not. Hockey is the only sport where fighting has been accepted as part of the game. Enforcers, goons, tough guys, all a given in a hockey rink. Even Hollywood exploited the idea of “goons” with the Hanson Brothers in the movie Slap Shot starring Paul Newman. And once the Hansons joined the fictional Charlestown Chiefs, the entire team changed. But the role of the goon has changed. Sure, he has to be intimidating, but now, in order to stay in the NHL, a goon also has to have hockey skills.
That is why Wilson of the Capitals has a chance to prolong his career in the NHL. Tough guy? Yes. Enforcer? Yes. Intimidator? Yes. Skilled? More than expected. But let’s start with the basics. He is 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. Big? Yes. In any league, in any era. But He has begun to take his play to a different level. Since joining the Capitals in 2013, his stats have steadily increased. His first season in the league he had three goals. Last season, he had 22. Not bad for a guy who was drafted because he had a reputation as a “big hitter”.
Physically, Wilson is reminiscent of former New York Islander Clark Gillies. Both big men, though Wilson is an inch taller, good skaters and both were drafted for their physicality. Gillies, however, grew as a scorer. Sure, the Islanders of that era had great lines and great players, but, individually, for three seasons in a row Gillies scored 30 or more goals. It helped that his linemates were Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, both Hall of Famers and were collectively known as the “Trio Grande”. But given the quality of play of Trottier and Bossy, Gillies had no choice but to step up.
Gillies had 25 goals his first season in the league then had streak of three seasons with over 30 goals each. Wilson isn’t there yet. And serving a 20-game suspension in 2018 for an illegal hit on Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues didn’t help his reputation as a “skill player” either. Yes, in the last year he’s become more aggressive, more “all out”. And being added to a line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin improved Wilson’s scoring ability. Obviously with a defense focusing on Ovechkin, Wilson’s opportunity to score increases.
Back to the Future?
Is Wilson a “throwback player?” Not necessarily, at least not yet. If he keeps growing he may have the skills to match someone like a Gillies. Was Gillies a Hall of Fame player? That’s debatable. If you’re an Islanders fan, then it isn’t even a question. He had an impact on the line with Trottier and Bossy, both slam-dunk Hall of Famers. Wilson has had a similar impact on Ovechkin, who is a guaranteed Hall of Famer.
Who Set the Standard?
Lou Fontinato with the New York Rangers in the 1950s was the enforcer of his time. His running feud with a fellow named Gordie Howe is well known. The problem for Fontinato was his feud was with one of the toughest men in hockey. Howe was an extremely skilled player, enormously tough and intimidating. It’s said he could intimidate simply by staring at an opposing player. But Fontinato personally experienced Howe’s toughness. On Feb. 1,1959 his face became acquainted with Howe’s fists. Fontinato’s face didn’t fare well. It had to be reconstructed.
Ironically, Howe was known for the “Gordie Howe hat trick,” which was a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. In reality, Howe himself only had a “Gordie Howe hat trick” twice. However, his toughness, longevity and pure hockey skills were peerless and he retired as the all-time leader in nearly every statistical category.
Howe was a forerunner of the “modern” hockey player and set a standard. He brought something else to the table besides physicality. Sure, there were guys like John McKenzie, Dave Schultz and Andre Dupont who came into the league with skill, but they were primarily known as “enforcers”. Howe’s dexterity on the ice belied his toughness, but his presence was always felt. Wilson has already made his presence felt. The question is can he capitalize on what’s already been accomplished and further utilize his skillset.