October 1, 2018
Tom Wilson is escorted off the ice after an illegal check on St. Louis center Oskar Sundqvist during Sunday's preseason game at Capital One Arena.
When the Washington Capitals open their season against the Boston Bruins and raise their Stanley Cup banner Wednesday night, Tom Wilson will be watching both events in street clothes. And for the second straight season, he will miss the beginning of the campaign with a suspension from the pre-season. And he will lose a substantial amount of money. That much is absolutely certain.
What we don’t know after Wilson’s predatory attack on Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues Sunday afternoon is exactly when his first game will be played. A pretty good guess would be, if Wilson’s lucky, it will be Nov. 1 when the Capitals visit the Montreal Canadiens for their 11th game of the season. But who knows? If the Department of Player Safety really wants to send him a message, maybe it will be Nov. 21 when the Capitals host the Chicago Blackhawks in their 21st game of the season.
Back in the summer, I sat with Tom Wilson in the upper seats of the St. Michael’s College Arena for piece I wrote on him for our Season Preview. I found him to be charming, funny, engaging and excessively accommodating. We talked about his reputation for headhunting and he went out of his way to stress that he has met with DOPS a number of times and was dedicated to playing a physical game within the boundaries of the rulebook.
“I’m not a guy who’s trying to hurt people,” Wilson told me that summer morning. “I try to play the game hard. I’m trying to learn the hits that are acceptable and the ones that aren’t. I’m trying to grow with the department and make sure that I’m on the ice and not in the stands. I don’t want to be in the stands. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I want to be playing hockey, the game that everyone loves.”
And you know what? I believed him. And if he stood in front of me and said exactly the same thing, in spite of his near decapitation of Sundqvist, I’d believe him again. I believe Wilson desperately wants to be a clean, but tough player, but he clearly has no idea how to go about it. His hit on Sundqvist in the second period of a pre-season game is a crystal-clear indication this is the case. A nothing game with zero on the line, no messages needing to be sent, no points at stake. And he goes out and recklessly drills a guy in that circumstance? Even if Wilson didn’t mean to hit Sundqvist in the head, what on Earth could he have possibly been thinking?
Enough is enough.
This is a guy who has been in the NHL for five years and as much as he’s tried, he simply hasn’t been able to grasp the difference between being a clean hitter and a head-hunting predator. So now it’s time to dispense with the carrot and employ the stick. It’s very easy, really. If DOPS wants to end this kind of behavior and be taken seriously, it must hand Wilson a double-digit suspension. The baseline here is 10 games and you start working from there.
See, here’s the thing. Wilson is making DOPS look stupid at the moment, much the same way Brad Marchand has done this. To their credit, the guys in that department also want to see Wilson on the ice and not in the press box. Like most people who love hockey, they want players to be physical and hard-hitting. And on a number of occasions in the past couple of years, they’ve sat him down, showed him lots of tape and made it very clear to him what is acceptable and what is not. And Wilson has responded by either (a) not listening to them, or (b) not being able to grasp the message they are trying to deliver to him loud and clear. So it’s clearly time for another method to be used.
With two suspensions to his credit in the past year, including a three-game ban in the second round for blowing up Zach Aston-Reese of the Pittsburgh Penguins and almost derailing the Capitals’ season in the process, Wilson is a repeat offender. And this is very important. Let’s say for the sake of argument, he gets a 10-game ban. Because he’s a repeat offender, his fine will be based on the number of games he receives divided by 82, which is the number of games each team plays. That would put his suspension at $630,081.22 based on the contract he signed this past summer that pays him an average of almost $5.2 million a year. If he were a first-time offender getting 10 games, the fine would be based on the number of games divided by 186, which is the number of days in the regular season. That would have put the fine at $277.777.74.
Wilson has been offered an in-person hearing, which means his suspension will almost certainly be a minimum of six games. To give Wilson anything fewer than 10 games would represent a gold-plated invitation for him to change nothing and be an opportunity missed by the league to seize an incredibly valuable teachable moment, for Wilson and other young players. To take Wilson’s privilege of playing hockey for between 11 and 20 games would send an indelible message. You can only hope that Wilson receives and heeds it this time.
It’s time. Hit him hard, then let the NHL Players’ Association appeal the sentence and be put in a position to defend the indefensible. And let those who think a player skating with his head down for a split second through the middle of the ice deserves to be decapitated espouse their views from their vantage point in the 20th century.