20 games is a long time to learn a lessonCapitals forward Tom Wilson received a 20-game suspension on Wednesday for delivering an illegal hit to the head to Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in a preseason game on September 30. It is a decision that has been met with both resounding praise and harsh criticism over the past day.
Wilson is not a bad person, nor is he a bad player. In fact, he was awarded the Bob Probert Bowl in the First Annual Puck Junk Awards earlier this year for possessing that formidable balance of skill and aggression.
However, his hit on Sunqvist was egregious and inexcusable. So, the NHL handing Wilson a 20-game suspension was the right thing to do. Here’s why.
It’s Not the “Victim’s” Fault
First off, saying that Sunqvist put himself in a vulnerable position is incorrect. The “Tom Wilson Apologists” — who seem to be able to explain away every misdeed the Caps forward has done — point out that Sunqvist had his head down. That’s the typical “blame the victim” mentality, where if something bad happens to someone, it’s their own fault. Some NHL fans are apt to do this when their guy gets suspended for doing something he should not have. Usually, they will justify said behavior by saying things like:
“He should know better than to skate with his head down.”
“He was cheap-shotting our players all night, so something had to be done.”
“If he was only willing to drop his gloves and fight, he wouldn’t have been (pick one: slashed, cross-checked, blindsided, sucker-punched).”
While it is true that Sunqvist had his head down, there is one important thing that the Tom Wilson Apologists fail to mention: Sunqvist was following through on his shot. He had his head down and turned away from Wilson because he was looking at the net. When a player shoots the puck, their head is going to lower, and they are going to look in the general direction of their shot. Blaming Sunqvist for “having his head down” makes as much sense as blaming a goalie for falling on top of the puck.
Not All Hits Need to “Destroy”
Let me tell you a quick story from my childhood. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to play a game called “Fumble Rumble.” One kid would attempt to run the football across the field — in this case, the lawn alongside my best friend Danny’s house — while all the other kids would try to tackle him. Yes, tackle him. And this was before I knew that diving into the runner’s legs or a “horse collar” (my signature move in Fumble Rumble) were not really legal tackles.
But we were all around 10 years old, give or take, so really we just kind of bounced off of each other more than anything. If Danny and I played that game today as adults, we could seriously hurt each other because we are bigger, faster and stronger. And if we were trying to hit each other as hard as possible, one or both of us would get injured.
Now, think of the damage that today’s athletes can do to each other.
Back when players were around 5’8″ and 170 lbs., body checking — unless in an extreme circumstance — wasn’t going to seriously injure anyone. Players were smaller, skated slower and the padding was almost nonexistent.
Contrast that with someone like Tom Wilson, who is 6’4″ and 218 lbs, probably wears hard plastic shoulder pads like most players, and hits like a freight train. But does he really have to hit like a freight train to be effective?
Even Eddie Shore, known for his thunderous hits (including an illegal check that ended a career) taught the players that he later coached that not every hit had to be hard. Kent Douglas, the NHL’s rookie of the year in 1963 who later played for Shore, explained this:
“For instance, he showed me that you don’t always have to hit a man real hard. Sometimes you just have to get a piece of him to get the job done.” (From page 33 of the the book “Hockey Explosion” by Bill Gutman)
The purpose of body checking is to separate the man from the puck. If you knock him down and out of the play, that’s a bonus. Someone like Wilson needs to learn how to hit opponents without hurting them. It is possible.
The Culture of Hockey Has Changed
I am not anti-fighting in hockey. In fact, sometimes I wish there was fighting in the beer league that I play in. I probably would have dropped the gloves with a few guys who run me into the boards (it’s a no-check league) or slash me behind the play. I’m not saying that I would win every — or any — fight I got into, but at least I would be able to let other players know that I won’t tolerate abuse from them.
As a kid, I remember when Troy Crowder beat Bob Probert in a fight, and eagerly anticipated their rematch. But just like the TV show ALF or carving pumpkins for Halloween, the WWF-style of hockey goonery no longer appeals to me. Players need to have the right to protect themselves, or even to pop someone like Brad Marchand in the kisser if he tries to lick you.
I’m also not advocating the removal of hitting in hockey. Hockey is a blend of skill and toughness. Players excel at one or the other, or sometimes are a balance of both. And hitting will always be an effective way of separating a man from the puck.
But a guy who is 6’4″ can hit half as hard as someone who is 5’8″ and still be twice as effective.
Yes, everyone cheers when a big hit is dished out. But the last time I looked, it was whichever team has the most goals — not the most reckless hits — that wins the game.
And please don’t bring up Scott Stevens’ hit on Eric Lindros from almost 20 years ago. The league would have been better off with Lindros enjoying another 10 productive seasons than Stevens delivering one highlight-reel, though questionable, hit.
Wilson is Not Being Singled Out
Yesterday, during SportsNet’s “Hockey Central” radio show, co-host Nick Kypreos stated that NHL Player Safety was singling out Wilson, and that Wilson was getting suspended because he had a reputation.
During the 2017-18 season, Wilson was suspended two times in the preseason, and then again in the playoffs. Yes, a player like that is going to get a reputation.
Even the NHL acknowledged this in its statement on Wilson’s most recent suspension:
“There’s no formula for someone that’s been suspended this often. We’ve never had [a] player in the modern era that’s been suspended this much, this frequently. Sixteen games ago, he hit another guy in the head.” – NHL Department of Player Safety
Sixteen games ago refers to the 2018 playoffs, when Wilson delivered a hit to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Resse. Worth noting is that the Tom Wilson Apologists claim that he didn’t actually leave his feet to hit Aston-Reese in the head, but rather his skates lifted off the ice after the contact was made — so it was totally a good hit, bruh.
Wilson had 15 points in 21 playoff games, but would probably have scored a few more in the three games that he missed. Did Wilson learn his lesson, learn to dial it back just a bit or how to be effective without blindsiding a guy?
So, maybe this 20-game “time out” will help Wilson by giving him the time he needs to find that balance of playing with an edge without harming others Or, maybe losing $1,260,162.60 of his salary for the season will convince him that slamming into guys as fast as he can isn’t always the best way.
Can a leopard change his spots? Sure. The late Stan Mikita used to be one of the most penalized players in the NHL, but turned his game around and won the Lady Byng Trophy as the league’s “most gentlemanly” player twice, and the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer four times. That extra time spent outside of the penalty box did wonders for Mikita’s career.
Wilson may never win the NHL scoring title, but when he learns to control his physicality, he can definitely blossom into a power forward that will be a game breaker instead of a bone breaker. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.