Capitals right wing Tom Wilson has endured his fair share of drama over the course of the 2018-19 season, from an initial 20-game suspension that ended up being reduced, to being ejected from a game for an innocent play because of his preceding reputation, to his sustained concussion from a blindside hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves in a recent game in Sin City. No matter how well Wilson has played, his reputation is something that will always precede him. In this article, NoVa Caps’ Chris Laroche pens a letter to fans of the league’s other 30 teams about Wilson’s reputation and what it means for the Caps.
It’s times like this when I am more thankful than ever to have an outlet to collect my thoughts and share them with a wider audience. There is no exception to the fact that I will always hold my head high and tell people that I am a proud fan of the 2018 Stanley Cup Champions. Today, however, I want to send a message to fans of other teams about what it’s like to have a controversial player in the lineup.
The player in question needs no introduction, his name is Tom Wilson, and he is known throughout the league by other fan bases as being a dirty player. I often refer to him as Washington’s “resident tough guy” in my writing, but that doesn’t mean I always approve of his style of play.
Last night, No. 43 got what many outside the DMV have been calling “a taste of his own medicine”, being knocked off his skates on the aforementioned blindside hit by Golden Knights’ forward Ryan Reaves. The hit has been the subject of a lot of conversations as the days have gone on, and I feel now it the appropriate time for me to weigh in on the subject.
Throughout the NHL, there are a number of players whose names come to mind when thinking of a playing style similar to that Wilson’s; Reaves is one of them. Some other names on that list are Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, and Nazem Kadri, to name a few. Each of these players have had numerous hits with questionable intent throughout their careers, and each have gone on to find success with their teams, and love from their fans. It’s hard to give up on someone when they’re on one’s favorite team, even if you don’t agree with that they’re doing. I am no exception to that rule of thumb; I love and support Tom Wilson, despite his reputation.
Take away the so-called dirty play, all of it. One is left with a stellar power forward. Wilson is great at creating chances for the rest of the team and he’s great at putting the puck in the back of the net every now and then. For someone as young as he is, he has an excellent media presence. He handles the press and the fans really well. He loves the kids, the kids love him. Outside of his physical play, he’s an ideal hockey player and teammate. He’s worth the raise he got in his new contract this past summer, because he’s so young and will only elevate his game as he ages. Since his return from a reduced 20-game suspension, Wilson has done spectacular things; he has 14 points in 11 games and shows no signs of slowing his game down. That was, until last night.
Wilson was escorted off the ice by Washington’s Head Athletic Trainer Jason Serbus and teammate Chandler Stephenson after taking an exceptionally hard hit from Reaves and didn’t return for the rest of the game. The most disgusting thing about the hit Reaves delivered to Wilson was the fact that as Wilson lay on the ice trying to collect himself, Reaves stood over him, laughing. The Vegas forward was over the moon with his barbaric actions, and so was the T-Mobile Arena crowd, which erupted into thunderous applause as Wilson’s now helmet-less head bounced off the ice. If we’re talking about unsportsmanlike conduct, I can forgive dishing out a heavy hit to a heavy hitter, but mocking your victim and laughing at their pain is so unfathomably atrocious I can’t even form a proper sentence to express my disgust. That alone should constitute a suspension. Reaves achieved unsportsmanlike nirvana last night. And shame on every single person who cheered alongside him, be them attendees or players. There is zero need to applaud a game-ending injury.
But as we learned the morning after, Reaves would face no disciplinary action for his attack on Tom Wilson. Which calls into question, once again, whether or not player safety is really the NHL’s primary concern in situations like this. Let’s briefly take a look back at some of this season’s most notably deplorable moments, and see what’s happened as a result.
On September 25, Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny was injured in a preseason contest by Robert Bortuzzo of the St. Louis Blues. The 29-year-old from Ontario, Canada elbowed Kempny in the face, concussing him in the process. Kempny would go on to make it to Injured Reserve and would also miss the remainder of the preseason as well as the first three games of the regular season. He was, however, well enough to dress and skate with the team for the group photo during the home opener’s banner ceremony. Bortuzzo would go on to to be suspended for the rest of the preseason and missed the first game of the regular season in the process before returning to the lineup from his blatant assault. This was a total of three games missed for the St. Louis defenseman.
On November 7, T.J. Oshie was met with a hit to the head by Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin. This would be the second time that night that Oshie was escorted off the ice, but in the Penguins’ defense, the first period high-sticking penalty did seem unintentional. Pittsburgh’s No. 71 was ejected from the game for the hit, and left in a characteristic huff of rage that Malkin has become known for. Oshie would return later that night and win the game for Washington, but Malkin never received a hearing for his dangerous hit.
On November 14, Oshie was slammed unceremoniously by Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey. Oshie hasn’t played since, and Morrissey was fined $8,467.74, the most allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, for unsportsmanlike conduct and interference. Rumors began to swirl early yesterday afternoon that Oshie was skating at MedStar Capitals Iceplex while the rest of the team readied themselves for Vegas, but that’s the first word of improvement we’ve heard of in over two weeks. Morrissey makes $3,150,000 per season and has three points in his last five games.
On December 4, Matt Calvert of the Colorado Avalanche was blindsided by Tyler Bertuzzi of the Detroit Red Wings when the Detroit forward struck Calvert unexpectedly as he skated past the Red Wings’ bench. Bertuzzi wasn’t even on the ice when he attacked Calvert, but he was issued a two-game suspension for his heinous behavior. Calvert was able to finish the game.
On October 2, Wilson charged through Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues in a preseason bout. The St. Louis forward would go on to miss the rest of the preseason and eight regular season contests. Wilson was suspended for 20 games, before the suspension was reduced.
Let me make one thing abundantly clear, I am not condoning Wilson’s particularly aggressive brand of play. Nor am I claiming that the NHL specifically targets him, or gives special treatment to any players across the league. Should those be your beliefs, I respect your opinions, but I choose to believe the league is better than it seems when it comes to this sort of thing. But what I am saying is that there is a huge lack of consistency when it comes to defining what is and is not a punishable offense in the NHL. Why is it that while all of the previously mentioned moments were unsportsmanlike and some of them completely out of line, they all had varying degrees of punishment, from fines, to ejections, to missing nearly a third of the season, to not even a slap on the wrist? One would assume that there’s a guideline for what makes an action punishable, and to what degree.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case. I feel like in most situations, the Department of Player Safety closes their eyes and throws darts at a board with a list of punishments attached to it to decide what fate the player in question will face. But what Ryan Reaves did was, in my humble opinion, far worse than anything listed above. He deliberately hit Wilson with intent to injure him, and stood over Wilson admiring his work, laughing out loud. Violent plays are violent plays, they happen in every sport. But blatant unsportsmanlike conduct is inexcusable, and for that, and that alone, I believe Reaves deserves to serve a suspension. And personally, I think all of those listed actions warrant a punishment.
And to the fans who’re applauding Reaves for his actions, shame on you. I don’t blame some fans for being happy with Wilson “getting a taste of his own medicine”, but not a single person I know has ever applauded Wilson for injuring anybody. The fact that people are out there carrying Reaves around on their shoulders like he’s some sort of hero is disgusting. Reaves is no better than Wilson when it comes to hard-hitting plays, and and is far worse when it comes to unsportsmanlike conduct. There have been many times that my personal friends will ask me for my thoughts on any given Wilson-based controversy, and there have been times where all I could retort with was that Wilson is a Cap, and as long as he’s a Cap, I will support him. But I do no agree with everything he does. I have never once stood up and applauded when Wilson delivered a heavy hit to someone. If someone falls to the ice and doesn’t get back up, I say a prayer for them, regardless of who hit them, who they are, or what team they play for. But the fans who’re openly pleased about Wilson being hurt need to rethink their choices in life. Professional athletes go out and compete every night for our entertainment, and to cheer and approve of someone being hurt is absolutely disgusting.
I ask anyone who’s read this whole article, whether you’re a fan of the Capitals or not, whether you love Tom Wilson or you hate him, to say a prayer for his health. No one deserves to have ill wishes placed upon them. Wilson is only a human being who’s trying to help his team succeed. He has a family who is worried about him. I’m sure that image of Reaves hovering over him laughing will haunt them for months to come.
At the end of the day, we’re all only human. That included Ryan Reaves. That includes the people in charge of issuing punishments in the National Hockey League. And that includes Tom Wilson.
By: Chris Laroche