“We’ll Worry About Our Team and See Where It Comes Come Crunch-Time”: Tom Wilson Talks New York Rangers, Changing His Game, Olympics, and More

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Over the course of his career, Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson has become one of, if not the, most polarizing players in the National Hockey League, while evolving into one of the Capitals’ most essential pieces. In a recent appearance on the “Real Kyper and Bourne” podcast with Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos and Justin Bourne, the former first-round pick covered a wide-range of topics.

When he first began his time in the NHL (all in Washington), Wilson was primarily a fourth-line player who acted in more of a “tough guy”, enforcer-like role. However in the past several seasons and after a number of supplemental disciplinary handouts by the league, he has become one of the Caps’ most important players and a well-rounded game has made him a vital cog in the team’s quest for a second Stanley Cup championship.

“I think the physicality and stuff is always going to be natural to me. It’s always what I’ve had my whole life, I’ve always taken pride in playing the game hard, and playing every shift hard. I grew up watching guys like Wendel Clark and those guys in Toronto so that’s always been there for me. Obviously over the years I’ve tried to improve offensively and round out my game. I don’t think too much about it, guys that have played, you kind of need to flip the switch on and off and when you need to, depending on how the game’s going, you need a goal, need a fight, you just kinda take it as it goes. There’s no real easy way to say how it happens, but you kind of just have to flip a switch and I’ve just tried to add that to my game over the years. [Former Capitals Head Coach] Barry Trotz a couple years ago would talk to me about when and how and when its needed so that’s also important”.

Wilson is now firmly entrenched as a top-six player for the Caps and a key figure in the team’s locker room.

“It’s been a fun ride. I’ve played with some really good players and that always helps because as you play more with those guys you demand more of yourself and you learn. Guys like Nicky Backstrom, and Kuzy [Evgeny Kuznetsov], and Ovi [Alex Ovechkin] and when you’re playing with those guys they demand the best and you push yourself to make good plays and you make good plays to improve and not let them down as a teammate and as a linemate, and I think just worrying about my game and being able to add a little bit offensive capability made for a good recipe over the years, and it’s still coming. You’re still always trying to adapt and improve and there’s a lot of young guys now, and just trying to help those guys. I really focus on whatever I can do to help the team win. Whether it’s helping those guys out on the ice to get a little more room, or whether it was a fight to change the momentum early in my career, my mentality has always been like what can you bring to the table to help the team win…”.

During a meeting between the Capitals and New York Rangers in the 2020-21 season, Wilson’s hard-hitting, physical play during the teams’ previous meeting resulted in the two teams engaging in a game that saw the longtime rivals combine for 72 penalty minutes within the first four minutes of the contest, and a line brawl to begin the night. In addition, the Rangers released a statement on Wilson’s play, and the Blueshirts fired their General Manager and Team President followed by an offseason of change to their lineup, which has resulted in the team leaping to a current position of first in the Metropolitan Division and third in the Eastern Conference.

“I think it comes in waves, I think you see a lot of teams around the league, they get skilled and then a big, heavy team has success in the playoffs and then the next year every team goes out and gets big and heavy again, and then the game trends small and skilled and it’s kind of a circle and it’s been that way for awhile. Obviously the Rangers wanted to address it and they brought in a new coach and he’s obviously had a lot of success and they’re playing good hockey. They’ve always had talented players in that room and they’re playing well this year and obviously that’s a rivalry and a lot of guys over there, I’m a big fan of Arty Panarin. He’s a character, he’s a lot of fun to watch play. But we’ll worry about our team and see where it comes, come crunch time down the end of the season and playoffs”.

“I’ve learned over the years to tune it [increased focus on him by other clubs] out a little bit. Sometimes it’s hard to tune it, but I just try to focus on what’s in my room. We’ve got so many great guys and they always have my back. There can be a lot of distractions especially nowadays with social media and all that, but I just try to worry about my game and I guess at this point making it so other teams don’t like playing against me, has become the theme, but we’ll play hard hockey and hopefully keep collecting the wins and having success here in Washington”.

Heavy physicality has disappeared somewhat from the game of hockey, as the game has transformed into one that emphasizes speed and skill and less on physical play, another reason for Wilson’s evolution as a player.

“…There’s so much less of it now, everyone kind of wants to play hockey first. There were games when I first came in, nine, ten seasons ago where you knew it was going to be a tough one, you knew there was going to be two or three fights. You don’t really go into games with that mentality, that mindset anymore. Everyone wants to play hockey, there’s not a ton of physicality, there are different teams that play that way but everyone wants to play offense first and win, and the fighting and that stuff has kind of taken a backseat…”.

Entering the 2021-22 season, NHL players seemed to be on their way to returning to the Winter Olympics before the league decided against allowing players to do so as a result of the league’s regular season schedule being interrupted by coronavirus cases increasing. Wilson’s name had been floated in talks for Team Canada’s roster in some circles.

“That was really too bad. Just being part of the process was another dream come true. You know when you’re a kid growing up it’s the Stanley Cup and it’s the Gold Medal at the Olympics are the two things you’re dreaming about on the backyard rinks so just to be mentioned throughout that process was pretty special and I was really excited just to see how it all went down, and see what would happen and seeing the best-on-best hockey. So that was a huge bummer when that happened, I don’t think it was fair. I think guys want to compete and show the game on one of the biggest stages in the world. It was pretty cool to be a part of the process being mentioned with some of the best players in the world. I don’t think we’ll know how close I was, I know I had a chance, but like I said, probably the toughest team in any sport to make…We’ll leave it as I was in the running”.

The entire interview with Wilson can be listened to HERE or HERE.

By Michael Fleetwood

About Michael Fleetwood

Michael Fleetwood was born into a family of diehard Capitals fans and has been watching games as long as he can remember. He was born the year the Capitals went to their first Stanley Cup Final, and is a diehard Caps fan, the owner of the very FIRST Joe Beninati jersey and since then, has met Joe himself. His favorite player became former Capital Nate Schmidt after he met Schmidt in a Hershey hotel while in Hershey PA to see the Bears play, shortly after Schmidt was injured during a conditioning stint. Michael is also a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Orioles, and enjoys photography, watching WildEarth TV's SafariLive live safaris, and watching animals in his spare time. (Photo by Adam Vingan in 2014 at the Capitals Development Camp).
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