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Wilson loses appeal, LONG suspension upheld
BY SAMMI SILBER | OCT. 25, 2018
Capitals forward Tom Wilson knew he was going in for a big open-ice hit when he slammed into an unsuspecting Oskar Sundqvist in Washington’s preseason finale against the Blues. However, he didn’t know what it would cost.
Wilson was suspended for 20 games for the check largely to Sundqvist’s head on Oct. 3, a punishment that makes an example of the 24-year-old winger. As he’s been watching from the press box, Wilson decided to appeal the suspension, and the NHLPA filed it on his behalf Oct. 5.
“It’s definitely an experience you hope you [never] go through,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of learning; all the sudden you’re surrounded by lawyers. I’m a hockey player and I want to play hockey.”
After nearly a three-week appeal process, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman upheld the ruling Thursday, citing a multitude of reasons, including that Wilson intentionally targeted Sundqvist’s head, leaving him with a concussion and multiple face lacerations.
Bettman also affirmed in his decision that the hit was not “unavoidable,” and that the play was unnecessary. He went on to explain that the hit “did not require Mr. Sundqvist to take affirmative actions to avoid being checked in the head.”
“I also reject the argument that Mr. Wilson’s angle of approach and resulting check on Mr. Sundqvist was somehow justified because he was merely backchecking in accordance with Washington’s defensive ‘system,’ and how he is ‘coached to play,’” Bettman wrote.
This is the fourth suspension that Wilson has received in the last 104 games; he was suspended on three different occasions last season, including the preseason, regular season and postseason. Prior to this season, Wilson was most recently suspended for three games of the 2018 postseason for a head check on Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese, causing a concussion and broken jaw.
Wilson is aware that he has a reputation and pointed out in May that he was “under the microscope,” given an extensive track record of controversial hits that dates back to the start of his NHL career. His status as a repeat offender has led critics to consider him a “dirty player” and has also made it difficult for others to defend him.
“There’s a lot that goes into every hit, every situation and a lot of people just jump right to that conclusion and attack you,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s teammates have defended him, citing how his size, speed and playing style can lead to complications, and that his controversial plays are far from intentional.
“I think Tom’s a clean player, and I don’t think he’s out to hurt anybody,” center Nic Dowd said.
Many around the league disagree with that assessment.
In his initial suspension, the NHL Department of Player Safety said that Wilson’s “reckless” play, despite numerous warnings from the league, has not changed over the years and that he was “not getting the message,” according to a statement from George Parros, the NHL’s Head of the Department of Player Safety.
Over time, Wilson has said that he plays the game as it has traditionally been played: physically. He’s never been afraid to throw a hit or take a hit, and has emphasized how his playing style has always been the same, and that the fallout from his dangerous plays is never a reflection of his character or mentality.
However, as he looks at how the game is evolving, he has admitted that because the league is cracking down to keep players safe, he’ll have to finally adapt and change the way he plays and overall, “be smart out there.”
“No one wants to be in the situation I’m in right now, so [I’ve] got to change something because obviously, it’s not good to be out and not helping your team,” Wilson said.
With Wilson out of the lineup, the Capitals have had to replace him on the top line and have had to shuffle lines numerous times to compensate for his absence. Brett Connolly and Chandler Stephenson were both given chances on that line, but after a lack of offense came from those combinations, Devante Smith-Pelly has stepped up and is replacing Wilson.
While not playing, Wilson said he’s been focusing on staying in shape and preparing to jump right back in.
“It’s a time period for me to be able to improve my game and work on some things,” Wilson said. “I feel like… I’ve learned a lot from them.”
With the appeal denied, Wilson can now appeal to a neutral arbitrator. However, the league was not merely upholding his suspension, or trying to make an example of him; instead, they are sending yet another message they want Wilson to finally receive.
Sammi Silber is a fall intern for the Sports Capitol. She’s a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park and writes about the NHL for The Sporting News. She spent the last two years as the Capitals Beat Writer for The Hockey Writers. Sammi’s work has also been featured on Yahoo! Sports, Huffington Post and USA TODAY College. When not writing about sports, Sammi is DJing at WMUC-FM 88.1 on campus and working for Student Entertainment Events, the University of Maryland’s programming board.