When Tom Wilson crosschecks and punches a defenseless player, then tears the helmet off one of the NHL’s biggest stars before violently throwing him to the ice, he’s filling a part of the job description for which in return he is paid an average of $5,166,166 per season. But he’s also abdicating his responsibilities that he chose to accept when he became a professional hockey player – to himself, the game, his league, his opponents and the fans who look up to him. If you don’t want to accept those responsibilities, that’s fine. Go do something else with your life.
As always, there is plenty of blame to go around for Wilson’s latest moment in infamy. In some ways, this is not Tom Wilson’s fault. It hasn’t been for a long, long time and, in reality, it never was. Tom Wilson is aided, abetted, encouraged and enabled by a league, a players’ association and a hockey culture. And that is why he does these things. But to give him a pass for his behavior just because the NHL, the Washington Capitals and the NHL Players’ Association have done exactly for years now completely lets Wilson off the hook for egregious behavior that 99.9 percent of his peers in the NHL know is wrong and dangerous. Personal responsibility has to play a role here.
Wilson has been suspended five times and, as of today, fined three times during his NHL career. The most recent suspension came less than two months ago when he received seven games for boarding Brandon Carlo of the Boston Bruins and the latest fine, a $5,000 payment that represents 0.097 percent of his average annual salary, was levied on Wilson today by the NHL’s department of player safety for roughing Pavel Buchnevich, the defenseless player Wilson punched a number of times. He received nothing for rag-dolling Rangers star Artemi Panarin, who jumped on Wilson’s back in response to his working over of Buchnevich.
It simply boggles the mind how the NHL could deem what Wilson did to be worthy of only a fine, particularly given his long record as a repeat offender. What the league should have done with Tom Wilson is what it has never, ever done. It should have taken the privilege of playing in the best league in the world away from Wilson for a long, long time. Not forever, but long enough to make him realize that he represents a danger in the workplace for every one of his opponents. The NHL and player safety has made no secret of the fact that they want Wilson in the game. Three summers ago, they called a meeting with him, sat him down and pointed out to him what he needed to do to stay on the ice. “I’m trying to grow with the department and make sure that I’m on the ice and not in the stands,” Wilson told me in the summer of 2018. “I don’t want to be in the stands. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I want to be playing hockey, the game that everybody loves.”
Had the NHL decided to suspend Wilson for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs, nobody outside the Washington Capitals Fan Club would have complained. The Capitals have four games remaining this season. Pro-rated over an 82-game schedule, that amounts to the equivalent of six games. Sitting him out for the playoffs, based on the NHL’s assertion that a playoff game is worth two regular-season games, would have added anywhere from the equivalent of eight to 56 games to that total. That would have put him in Raffi Torres territory and it may have had a chance of penalizing Wilson and the Capitals enough to make them stop.
Instead, he received a $5,000 fine for one of the offenses and nothing for the other. Both were equally serious. In fact, the body slam of Panarin came only inches from a potentially far more devastating, possibly tragic, outcome. What happened Monday night was a stain on the game, from the offenses themselves to Wilson laughing at and mocking the Rangers in the penalty box to the mind-boggling tweet the Capitals put out after the incident that they later pulled down. The response by the NHL to all of it put the finishing touches on two very dark days for the league and the game.
Full disclosure: I’ve spoken with Tom Wilson on numerous occasions and I like him. Off the ice, he’s polite, soft-spoken and engaging. My 21-year-old son, an enormous Capitals fan, adores the guy. When he plays the game within the rules, he has the potential to be one of the most effective players in the game. But even though he's not completely at fault, Tom Wilson has become a danger to everyone else on the ice. It looks as though he hasn’t learned anything to this point, largely because he’s never been made to really listen. This was a perfect opportunity to take the game away from someone who loves it for a long time and the league saw fit to not do that. Fine. But no tongue-clucking or head shaking the next time Tom Wilson crosses the line. Because he will do it again, of that we can be certain. Because you could argue that he’s been emboldened like he has never been before. We can only hope, and that’s all we’re reduced to now, that it doesn’t end terribly.
Carry on, then…