By the time Tom Wilson returns to playing hockey in two weeks, the cherry blossoms will almost be ready to bloom in Washington. When he steps on the ice to face the New York Rangers March 20, Wilson will have been suspended for a total of 30 regular-season, playoff and pre-season games and been fined in excess of $1.2 million in his career. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that the NHL has given him more mulligans than the world’s most dishonest golfer gives himself on a Sunday afternoon.
And judging by his past behavior, Tom Wilson will have learned nothing. Absolutely nothing. This was all supposed to be behind Wilson when he had his 20-game suspension for drilling Oskar Sundqvist commuted to 14 games back in 2018. We were fed the narrative that Tom Wilson has changed, that he’s committed to playing on the right side of the rulebook. The NHL has sat him down to talk about his style of play so many times that there’s probably a Tom Wilson Naughty Chair in the league’s head office.
You might be inclined to look at the most recent seven-game suspension Wilson received for “boarding” and be led to believe that the NHL came down hard on a repeat miscreant. But the opposite is actually true. What the NHL continues to do is enable Wilson. Aided by the Capitals and the NHL Players’ Association, who in the face of all logic choose to defend the indefensible, the hockey establishment continues to support Wilson and the way he plays.
The suspension is substantial to be sure. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told TheHockeyNews.com before the season that the truncated campaign would not have an effect on the length of suspensions, so we have to assume this would have been a seven-gamer in any season. But the reality is that a seven-game sentence in a 56-game season is the equivalent of 10 games in an 82-game season. Given Wilson’s rap sheet and the circumstances surrounding the hit, 10 games is not near enough, but it’s a lot by NHL standards.
But when you drill down into the justification for the suspension, that’s when you see the enabling. Even though director of player safety George Parros unequivocally acknowledges that Wilson made direct contact with Boston Bruins’ defenseman Brandon Carlo’s head on the hit in question Friday night, the league refused to punish him under Rule 48, the one that governs blows to the head. And it’s important to note that boarding suspensions are routinely shorter than those meted out for hits to the head.
Take the words Parros said himself in the NHL’s suspension video and if you can figure out how the NHL came up with a boarding infraction, please let us know. “With the puck bouncing in Carlo’s skates as he attempts to locate it,” Parros says in the video, “Wilson approaches from outside his field of vision and delivers a high, hard hit that makes direct contact with Carlo’s head, driving it violently into the glass and causing an injury. This is boarding.”
Really? Because when you say that Wilson makes direct contact with Carlo’s head, it actually makes it sound an awful lot like a headshot. And then, later in the video, when Parros says, “What separates this hit from others is the direct and significant contact to a defenseless players’ head and face, causing a violent impact with the glass,” well, you can excuse all of us for wondering why the league simply didn’t apply Rule 48 to the hit.
Again, it’s important to note that boarding is usually penalized less severely than headshots are. So what message is the NHL sending to Tom Wilson here? Well, you can’t help but think they’re trying to tell everyone publicly that they’re serious about curbing his behavior, privately they are all cutting the guy a break by not penalizing him under Rule 48. Which essentially encourages him to keep playing the way he plays.
It’s so contradictory. Those in the hockey establishment are quickly to cluck their tongues at some of the dangerous things that happened in the two-game series between the Capitals and Bruins last week, all the while secretly loving every bit of it. Those in the NHL will publicly defend their referees, claiming they’re the best in the world, even as a good part of the blame for all of this lies at the feet of Dean Morton and Pierre Lambert, who worked both games and allowed the Trent Frederic clown show in the first game to start the chain of events that led to Wilson’s hit, a hit neither of them saw fit to penalize. Nor did they penalize the laundry list of dirty plays that ensued, with the exception of giving Alex Ovechkin a two-minute slashing penalty for spearing Frederic in the privates. No wonder players believe they have to police the game themselves. It’s because the NHL refuses to fulfill its mandate and do it for them.
It’s also because those in the highest positions of power in the game, the disproportionate majority of them ex-players, love this stuff. For them, it’s as precious as oxygen. That’s why there’s a good chance that after Tom Wilson serves his seven games, he’ll keep playing the way he does. And the NHL will continue to enable it to happen.
One again, the NHL had a golden opportunity to send a message, a very real message, to Tom Wilson and players who play like him. And once again, it failed to do so. Carry on, then…