Wilson broke the rules and earned a three-game ban this time, but he has hurt plenty of people with his clean hits, too. And he's not the problem in those cases. The NHL rulebook is.
Tom Wilson was not suspended for his monstrous hit on Brian Dumoulin in Game 2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tom Wilson has, however, been suspended three games for his monstrous hit on Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, as the NHL announced Wednesday evening. And the reactions from Pittsburgh’s and Washington’s fan bases have been equally powerful and emotional in both cases. We’ve reached the point with Wilson, however, where it’s a waste of time to evaluate his hits on a case-by-case basis. He’s highlighted an overarching issue for the NHL, and it’s much bigger than him.
It’s also not Wilson’s fault in many instances. Sure, he hasn’t avoided punishment from the Department of Player Safety every time he lays out some poor player half his size. Wilson earned two suspensions in less than two weeks between September and October this season, a two-gamer for interference on the St. Louis Blues’ Robert Thomas and a four-gamer for boarding the Blues’ Samuel Blais. And Wilson misses the rest of Round 2 for the hit on Aston-Reese unless the series goes to Game 7.
So many times in Wilson’s five-season career, however, he’s landed on the right side of the law no matter how outraged fans of his victims become. He obliterated the New York Islanders’ Lubomir Visnovsky in the 2015 playoffs and forced Dumoulin out of this past Sunday’s contest. And it’s important to remember the damage Wilson causes, no matter how upsetting, doesn’t matter in the context of a suspension if it comes on a legal play. An injury can lengthen a suspension, but only after the DOPS decides a given hit is suspendable. Aston-Reese’s concussion and broken jaw extended Wilson’s suspension – but only because the league has decided the play causing the injury was in fact illegal.
So in this case, Penguins fans get justice – but it’s only a matter of time before Wilson KOs someone else with no supplemental discipline. After all, we saw it just a few days ago, because Dumoulin turned into Wilson at the last second, making head contact unavoidable, which set Wilson free.
The problem in many of these cases isn’t Wilson, nor is it the DOPS’ evaluation process. No, Wilson’s path of destruction is fuelled by two things: genetics and the NHL rulebook. No one can change the fact Wilson is a 6-foot-4, 218-pound bulldozer of a man. Fans of opposing teams react emotionally to so many of his powerhouse hits because they hurt people, but that doesn’t mean the blows are always dirty. When you're Wilson’s size, even the cleanest, most technically perfect strike annihilates whoever’s on the receiving end. The same thing happens when Dustin Byfuglien hits anybody. Just because a hit concusses someone doesn’t mean (a) it was illegal or (b) it was a headshot. As a post-concussion syndrome sufferer myself, I can assure you, concussions aren’t exclusively caused by blows to the head. They’re caused by the brain bouncing around inside the skull and thus are often the result of the neck whipping – which can just as easily occur from a powerful, clean blow to someone’s chest. It’s natural to assume foul play when you see a player lying motionless on the ice after a Wilson hit, but that’s sometimes our emotions talking.
Wilson could have a microchip surgically implanted to make him a perfectly behaved robot who dishes out every body check with perfect, angelic technical brilliance, eliminating plays like what he did to Aston-Reese – and Wilson would still leave a pile of concussed victims in his wake. He’s just too big not to hurt when he hits.
The only way to get players like Wilson to stop crushing people is to target the real source of the problem: the NHL rulebook. The DOPS can only enforce what’s in it. Decision makers George Parros, Damian Echevarrieta and Patrick Burke are bound by what’s in the current CBA. When Matt Cooke destroyed Marc Savard’s career with a headshot in 2010, the incident invited outrage, but there was nothing the league could do because the Rule 48.1 amendments didn’t exist yet. Cooke was dirty as hell but wasn’t technically breaking rules at the time. Only after that hit and because of that hit did Rule 48.1 come to exist as we know it today. Many of Wilson’s hits fall under the same category: staggering in their power, borderline predatory, but not actually illegal…
…until or unless the league makes new amendments to the rulebook. That’s what Ken Dryden has been championing all year when he suggests it’s time to ban all head contact, incidental or deliberate. Doing so would undoubtedly remove most hitting from the game, as heavy hits typically involve at least some incidental head contact. So deciding on making such a sport-altering change is a matter of what we want to see more of in our hockey going forward. If we don’t want hockey to lose its brawny trench warfare, we have to accept that beasts like Wilson and Byfuglien will steamroll people once in a while and that the hits will be clean most of the time. If we’re tired of seeing the Aston-Reeses of the world badly hurt, however, it’s time to alter the rulebook.
Hockey would never be the same, yes, but sometimes it’s difficult to unlearn scary facts about the human body and the things that jeopardize it. Once the world discovered cigarettes were carcinogenic, there was no turning back, You stopped smoking or kept going and accepted the risks of lung cancer.
So think of Tom Wilson as a cigarette. It’s up to the NHL to decide whether to keep smoking him and allow his brand of (often clean) hits in the game while stomaching the consequences – or accept that we have no choice but to change to sport to protect players’ safety.