I need to phrase this properly and I’ll probably fail, but here it goes: Tom Wilson is the perfect 1980s movie bully. He’s the villain that John Cusack, Patrick Dempsey, both Coreys and a slew of other misunderstood teens had to face on screen and I think we need to appreciate that.
The Washington Capitals right winger is coming off a four-point night against the Chicago Blackhawks while playing on the top line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. He’s also coming off a week in which he fought 38-year-old bearded San Jose Sharks legend Joe Thornton. And while Thornton is practically an NHL folk hero at this point in his career, Wilson thumped him in the bout. Because that’s what he does.
I know we’re trained to cheer for the scrappy underdogs, but can we at least acknowledge that in hockey, it’s really tough to be a premier intimidator?
Milan Lucic was the last player to really hold that title. And I know he’s still playing, but I’m talking Boston Bruins Lucic. The guy that effectively ended Mike Komisarek’s career. The guy that kicked off the Buffalo Sabres’ death spiral. The guy that scored 30 goals and won a Stanley Cup.
Wilson isn’t at that level yet, but he is on pace for his best offensive season yet and at 23, his ascendancy is coming around the same time as Lucic’s did with Boston. Wilson showed real signs of being more than just a fighter in last year’s playoffs and the progression is there.
In an age where straight-up, eight-minutes-a-night enforcers are practically extinct, Wilson has the chance to really throw his weight around. At 6-foot-4, 217 pounds, he’s got the size and as we’ve seen time and again, he’s got premier punching power. This year, he’s only lost one of six fights (Erik Gudbranson got him in a headlock) and in averaging 15 minutes a night, he’s proving to be far from one-dimensional.
Wilson went nearly straight from the draft to the Capitals and in the early days, he was essentially just a fighter. Washington obviously didn’t intend for that to be the fate of their second first-rounder in 2012 (don’t mention Filip Forsberg, don’t mention Filip Forsberg…) and in recent years, Wilson put in a lot of work rounding out the other parts of his game. The mission was to crib from ex-Caps stalwart Joel Ward – to be that guy that found goals around the net – and in earning time with Backstrom and Ovechkin, Wilson is showing off that growth.
Which takes us back to the movie bully analogy.
You can’t ignore Tom Wilson. He’s going to be out there, throwing hits and causing mayhem on a regular basis. He’s getting points. Heck, he’s even killing penalties. And if you’re not a Caps fan, you’re probably going to hate him. Which is kinda awesome.
What’s really amusing to me is that Wilson even has a lot of 1980s villain traits. And don’t get me wrong – I’ve interviewed him countless times and he’s always a good talker and a nice guy. But he’s got that perfect collared shirt vibe to him. He even grew up in uptown Toronto – not the suburbs where most of the city’s talent comes from. Wilson looks like the big jock/preppy with the girlfriend coveted by the underdog in every Slobs vs. Snobs movie from back in the day.
And I feel your heat right now: we shouldn’t lionize bullies. But here’s the thing: Wilson’s not actually a real-life bully, he’s an effective hockey player in the best league in the world. Whether or not you think he should have fought Thornton, he did so because ‘Jumbo’ injured Wilson’s teammate, T.J. Oshie. The Thornton hit was weird and not entirely intentional, but Washington doesn’t care about that – they lost one of their best players.
So hate on Wilson if you’d like, but I bet you’d rather have him on your side. And really, was Billy Zabka that bad a guy in the end?