At one time, fighting was a common and nightly occurrence in the NHL, with players dropping the gloves seemingly on a night-to-night basis. Over the years, however, physicality has become secondary in importance to skill and there few players in today’s NHL that combine offensive prowess with pure physicality, including fisticuffs. Capitals right wing Tom Wilson (with the ink still drying on his new, six-year contract) is one such player who possesses the brute force and physicality and offensive potential and capability to be effective. In this article, NoVa Caps’ Andrea Schlegel gives her perspective on Wilson’s game, how fighting has evolved, and how it will translate on Wilson’s new deal.
I attended my first hockey game in 1985, a contest played between the Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers. During the game, there were numerous fights and a bench clearing brawl (as was typical of the Flyers in those days). It took the officials awhile just to clear all the equipment from the ice. I don’t remember who won and didn’t understand the game at all at the time, but I was hooked. I purchased a Lou Franceschetti jersey and became a season ticket holder. Eventually, I would learn the aspects of the game but enjoyed the physical (including fighting) aspect of the game; it could be because that’s how the game was introduced to me, or something that goes back to Roman gladiator times, it’s hard to say.
The NHL game today, in terms of fighting and physicality is certainly not the NHL of the 1980’s. It’s difficult to pinpoint why, but there have been changes to the rules to make the game safer. To prevent bench clearing brawls, the NHL has instituted suspensions and fines. There are more severe penalties for instigating a fight, especially if it happens repeatedly. Today, there is also more of an awareness about concussions and repeated blows to the head, and the lasting health effects that result from such injuries. Lastly, many players now wear visors, so it’s logistically more difficult to punch someone in the face, to put it bluntly. Yet, the NHL has not banned fighting from the game entirely.
Historically, there has been a noticeable difference between the way European and North American hockey has been played. The European game is centered around faster, more skill-based players and fights are rare. If one ever watches Olympic hockey, the same is true. Internationally, if a player is involved in fighting, they are ejected from the game with possible further suspensions added. The NHL doesn’t have an automatic ejection. There is usually a five-minute penalty but the player can return. In the film, Red Army, which chronicles Soviet players entering the NHL for the first time, one of the aspects of North American hockey they found the hardest to adjust to was the frequency of fights in games. They were confused by it and didn’t understand why it was tolerated.
Fighting has diminished from its pinnacle in the 1980’s and early 1990’s for the reasons stated above and the expansion of the NHL itself. With so many teams added to the league, more international players are available to recruit and thus, skill over physicality was favored. The majority of recent expansion era teams play in the Western Conference, which could explain the lack of fighting, but overall the number of fights are declining. There have been calls to ban fighting altogether from the game but the league is reluctant to do so. Why? Quite simply, the players and the fans don’t want it eliminated.
Most of the cheap shots/dangerous plays, such as slashing, tripping, and high-sticking are penalized but are not always called. When infractions go unnoticed, it’s then up to the players to “send a message” to cease and desist, so a fight might be warranted. At times, fights occur out of pure frustration or to change the momentum of a game. Nobody would support the notion that a player should start a fight or hit with the intention to permanently injure another player, but some altercations may be justified. It’s arguably, the physical aspect of the game that is important to winning championships, but what constitutes a clean versus a dirty hit is something the league is grappling with every season.
Enter Wilson. He just signed the aforementioned multi-year deal to the delight of many Capitals fans. Opposing fans often refer to him as ,“trash”, a “goon”, and “dirty, but does he deserve those titles? I’d say no. Back in the day, teams would employ enforcers, players whose job it was to protect star players from the opposition’s physical players. At times, fights were pre-mediated and had nothing to do with the flow of the game. Those days are over with, as teams want and are prioritizing more skilled players over ones who rely purely on physicality. It is true, that Wilson has been suspended for some questionable hits but he is not an enforcer, nor does he solely rely on his physical game. He does have the ability to score, but his game IS a physical one focusing on hard-hitting. Wilson also doesn’t have an issue standing up for teammates or himself when necessary. Due to his willingness to drop the gloves and unapologetic playing style, the league definitely scrutinizes his hits more often, which in all honesty, they should. Players now are much faster and a split second turn of the body, could seriously injure another player.
I never analyzed Wilson’s game much until he received a three-game suspension in the Capitals’ second round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The officials on the ice examined the hit over and over and determined it didn’t deserve a game misconduct. Yet, the heavy suspension was handed down the next day. Initially, I thought it was done to appease the Penguins but then I started to really examine his game. Many have stated his skills are intangible but I would argue against that line of thinking. He excels in physicality. If anybody thinks that is unimportant, Game 5 of the Pittsburgh series (yes, I know he wasn’t in that game but the rest of the team stepped up their checking) and Game 6 of the team’s Eastern Conference matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning as Exhibits A and B. Goals win games, but there needs to be room to maneuver to make those goals. “Plowing the field” for lack of a better term and knocking opposing players off the puck is an element Wilson brings to the game consistently. Due to his willingness to dance the line of clean versus dirty hit, opposing players might alter their game. Is that a negative thing if one is on the Capitals’ side?
It wasn’t until Wilson’s fight in Game 7 of the Tampa series that one, he earned my respect and two, when it’s time for a new jersey, I may have to get his number. Fights in the Stanley Cup Playoffs are rare because giving the other team a power play can make the difference in a series. The initial altercation didn’t involve Wilson at all, but when Braydon Colburn ripped off Evgeny Kuznetsov’s jersey, Wilson was incensed and scrapped. They both served two minutes. Nothing interesting here. However, they chirped at each other during the entire penalty and decided their issues were not settled. As they left their respective penalty boxes, they dropped the gloves and fought. My first reaction was I couldn’t believe what I was seeing but then I quickly felt the way I did at that first hockey game in 1985. The players seems to approve, and all the people I talked to loved it. It was definitely a throwback from a bygone era. After that fight, the Capitals pulled away in that game and won the series.
Because of his reputation, there may indeed be times Wilson may cost this team with a suspension and he may not score as many goals as he did this year, but I would argue, none of that matters. If he can continue his physical play to open up the lanes for others, give a taste of hockey tradition with a fight now and then, he is worth every penny.
By Andrea Schlegel