It might not feel like for him at at the moment, but the NHL’s Department of Player Safety probably did Tom Wilson a favor by suspending him four games for a predatory hit along the boards during the pre-season. That’s because after four full seasons and 619 penalty minutes in the NHL, the 23-year-old is still clearly trying to figure things out. This time out should go a long way to expediting that process.
As someone who is often very, very critical of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, I find myself giving this very department a slow clap for its decision to make Wilson sit out the first four games of the 2017-18 season for boarding Samuel Blais of the St. Louis Blues during a pre-season game, not long after receiving a two-game pre-season ban for a late hit on Blues rookie Robert Thomas. Wilson has played more than 300 games in the NHL and is taking runs at rookies in meaningless pre-season games. That’s a clear indication of a guy who just doesn’t get it.
So, some stiff discipline is in order and in his first real suspension at director of player safety, George Parros lowered the boom. Wilson will watch the first four games of the season, lose out on almost $100,000 in salary and have lots of time to ruminate over what does and doesn’t cross the line in today’s NHL. We’re going to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s going to learn from this. We’re going to assume that when he next gets on the ice, he’ll do so armed with the knowledge that he can’t simply be a predator, dishing out dangerous and reckless hits with no sense of accountability. And if he does do that and continues to be one of the toughest and most punishing clean hitters in the league, he and the Washington Capitals will have the Department of Player Safety to thank for it.
What was so impressive about this suspension is that the league wasn’t accepting or making any lame excuses for a player. It identified what Wilson did as being dangerous and reckless and even though Wilson’s justification did not fall on deaf ears, Parros was clearly not buying the whole finish-your-check business that has long been the go-to excuse for the NHL’s miscreants. In the video explaining the suspension, Parros points out that, regardless of intent, Wilson’s angle of approach did not put him in a position to apply a legal hit to Blais. He also points out that Wilson had Blais’ numbers in his sights for the entire sequence.
“And while we understand Wilson’s explanation that he attempted to maneuver around Blais in a way that would enable him to deliver a shoulder-to-shoulder check, he is unsuccessful in this attempt,” Parros says in the video. “The onus is on Wilson to deliver a hit in a legal fashion, minimize the impact of the hit or avoid the hit completely.”
Imagine that. The player delivering the hit is responsible for the outcome. It helps that Blais in no way made himself vulnerable and was simply retrieving a puck along the boards on a backcheck. It also helped that not only had Wilson established himself as a repeat offender, he offended again in almost record time. Excuse me while I shake my head in amazement, but here we have a league sending a very real, very stern message to a player. This is a league that is full of people who think that taking dangerous hits out of the game is tantamount to turning the NHL into the Ice Capades.
Which brings us to Parros. When the former enforcer was named to head up the Department of Player Safety, your trusty correspondent was skeptical and critical. Parros is indeed a very intelligent guy. You don’t graduate from Princeton University by majoring in basket weaving. But my argument was that he was so ingrained in the culture of violence that the game not only accepts, but promotes, that he was a terrible choice.
I would love, absolutely love, to be proven wrong. And this is a great start. There will be GMs and coaches and players who hate this suspension and think it sends the NHL down slippery slope where players will be afraid to check their opponents. And, of course, it’s ridiculous. Clean shoulder-to-shoulder hits will always be encouraged and cheered and will always be a huge part of the game. If the NHL wants to get rid of reckless, dangerous and downright dumb hits, that will do nothing but be great for the game.
If this suspension is any indication, it looks as though Parros has an autonomy to penalize players in a way that we haven’t seen since Brendan Shanahan held the job. If that’s the case and he consistently uses that autonomy the way he did in dealing with Tom Wilson, there will be a lot of slow claps coming from this corner.
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