Perhaps now Tom Wilson knows exactly how the recipients of his predatory and reckless headshots feel. That because in his ruling upholding Wilson’s 20-game suspension for destroying Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues in the pre-season with a textbook hit to the head, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman fed both Wilson and the NHL Players’ Association a steady diet of proverbial cuffs to the head in the form of a 31-page dressing down.
You always have to read between the lines when it comes to Bettman. And when he uses language as pointed as he did in his ruling, you know he’s not pleased. Not at all. There were points in the ruling where the words almost jumped off the page. And the subtext of those words was something like: “I can’t believe you people are wasting my time with this.”
That, however, will likely not stop Wilson and the NHLPA from forging ahead with an appeal within seven days to independent arbitrator Shyam Das in an effort to defend the indefensible. Das is the same arbitrator who reduced Auston Watson’s 27-game suspension for domestic abuse to 18 games. And while the Wilson suspension will be a tough sell, when you’re this far down the rabbit hole, you’d might as well keep digging.
And before you go off admonishing the NHLPA for defending a serial predator while the player he hit is still on the injured list, you should realize that the union is only doing its duty. When a player makes an appeal, it must be done through the NHLPA, which has no choice in the matter. The same goes for the appeal. If the player pushes, the NHLPA must appeal to the furthest degree and it must provide him with adequate representation. And before you get the idea that Bettman was destined to stand behind his Department of Player Safety unconditionally, consider that Wilson’s appeal took more than seven hours and Bettman required five days to render a decision. It’s perfectly fair to question many of the decisions Bettman has made, but he is a man of utmost integrity. He was willing to listen to Wilson’s appeal with an open mind.
Even though in its appeal to Bettman the NHLPA argued the laughable notion that there should be no suspension for the Wilson hit, nobody really went into this thing thinking Bettman would reduce it to nothing, that was not the end game here. This is really all about money. The suspension for Wilson adds up to a fine of about $1.26 million based on Wilson’s cap hit of just under $5.2 million. That means that every game Wilson misses is costing him about $63,000. So any reduction in the number of games means a substantial amount of money. In fact, there’s a chance Wilson will not have a hearing and a decision from the independent arbitrator until after his 20 games elapses, which would mean any reduction in the suspension would only be in the form of him getting some money back.
It’s impossible to know how the arbitrator will ultimately rule, but it’s very, very clear by Bettman’s ruling that he wasn’t having any of what Wilson and the NHLPA were selling. He rejected each of their points flatly and emphatically.
The first thing Wilson and the NHLPA tried to argue was that Sundqvist’s head was not the principle point of contact. To which Bettman replies: “Simply watching video footage of the incident, including a frame-by-frame review, clearly and convincingly establishes that Mr. Sundqvist’s head was the main point of contact of Mr. Wilson’s check on the play in question. The video shows that as Mr. Wilson delivered the check on Mr. Sundqvist, Mr. Wilson’s left shoulder made primary, direct and substantial contact with his head and that his head – as opposed to any other portion of his body – received the majority of force from Mr. Wilson’s check.”
Wilson and the NHLPA also cited a DOPS video that supported the head should be considered the main point of contact only when it snaps back independently of the rest of the player’s body. Rejected by Bettman. They also argued that Sundqvist’s shoulder injury was the result of shoulder-to-shoulder contact, to which Bettman said, “Mr. Sundqvist’s head and body were spun violently as a result of Mr. Wilson’s check, causing Mr. Wilson to land hard on his right shoulder. Indeed, the injury report prepared in conjunction with the injury concluded that Mr. Sundqvist’s right shoulder injury was caused by him falling on his right shoulder.” Pretty basic stuff.
For a variety of reasons, Wilson and the NHLPA contended that contact with Sundqvist’s head was unavoidable, to which Bettman responded, “I reject this out of hand.” And of course, we’ve heard them all before. Sundqvist put himself in a vulnerable position and that Sundqvist “put himself in a shorter position by shooting the puck,” and the best one of all, that Wilson was simply backchecking in accordance to the Capitals defensive system and “how he is coached to play.” Bettman pointed out that there is a difference of one inch between Wilson and Sundqvist and that their heads, “were at nearly identical heights immediately prior to, during and immediately after the attempted shot on goal was taken.” The speed bagging continued when Bettman surmised that Wilson was being undermined by his own GM, Brian MacLellan, whose testimony Bettman pointed out, “flatly acknowledged that Mr. Wilson ‘had options’ to avoid checking Mr. Sundqvist’s head."
But Bettman saved his best salvos for later. He said in his report that the NHLPA and Wilson contended that it was clear that Wilson neither intended to injure Sundqvist nor targeted his head. “However, as the NHLPA well knows, Rule 48 no longer requires ‘intent’ to support a finding that the rule has been violated; indeed, the rule was amended five years ago to specifically delete the language referring to the ‘targeting’ of the head…Players are constantly cautioned not to put themselves in the position of ‘missing’ on ‘close hits’ where the result could be (and very often is) an illegal check to the head. Mr. Wilson has seemingly and consistently refused to heed this warning.”
We could keep going all night here, but the crux of it comes near the end when Bettman, who can be seen with steam coming from his ears if you read between the lines, expresses his frustration that Wilson simply doesn’t get it. “Mr. Wilson’s recent play has threatened the safety and well-being of opposing players on too many occasions, despite prior discipline being assessed and despite the considerable efforts of DOPS to counsel Mr. Wilson on how to play within the rules.”
And then the big finale: “I find that Mr. Parros’ decision to impose a significant decision of longer duration than in prior incidents in this case was readily supported by the evidence and might, in fact, be the only effective way to deter Mr. Wilson’s future ‘bad conduct’. I hope that this decision will serve as an appropriate ‘wake-up call’ to Mr. Wilson, causing him to reevaluate and make positive changes to his game.”
And if Wilson really wants to do the right thing here, he’ll take the next seven days to think about what Bettman said and he’ll abandon any notion that this is something worth continuing to fight. He won’t put himself, his union, his representatives and his league in another imbroglio that really seems to be a waste of everyone’s time.