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Tom Wilson: Why the NHL Finally Got It Right

By Morgan Evans:

This hockey preseason seemed unnervingly familiar for those who remember how the Capitals and Blues games played out last year. In the Washington Capitals’ final preseason game of 2018, a forward, Tom Wilson, made another illegal hit. St. Louis Blues’ Oskar Sundqvist suffered that hit that took him out of the game. Sundqvist was later diagnosed with a concussion and an upper body injury that resulted directly from Wilson’s hit. He has yet to return to his team’s lineup for the regular season.[1]


Since his rookie season in 2013, Wilson has seen about 180 minutes in penalties, four suspensions, and scoring just 35 points in 105 games. Tom Wilson has notably faced more suspensions than anyone currently playing in the league.[2] Wilson’s aggressive gameplay has drawn attention from fans and players nationwide, who are not appreciative of the nature of this contact. Although the nature of the sport is a fast and hard-hitting, these hits are arguably becoming less tolerable because the NFL concussion scandal is still fresh on everyone’s minds.


The NHL is finally sending a message that his behavior is not acceptable with Wilson’s long suspension. Given his repeated illegal hits and checking, the NHL has suspended him for 20 games. The Department of Player Safety (DOPS) has not issued this severe of punishment since 2015 when Raffi Torres was given a 41 game suspension. Wilson’s suspension was a clear message from DOPS that he needs to change his strategy immediately. DOPS identifies the illegal check to the head by a repeat offender as important in disciplining Wilson. They state that players with a history of violating NHL rules and regulations will be more severely punished with each new violation in any combination of suspensions and/or fines.[3]


Because of the recency of his previous suspension, some speculate that the league is punishing him because of both hits proximity in time. During 2017 preseason, Wilson was disciplined twice for illegal conduct, both against St. Louis. One suspension was two games for interference and another, less than two weeks later, for boarding received a four games suspension. Wilson was then suspended in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs for an illegal check to the head on May 1st (just 16 games before the current suspension). Despite only being suspended for one hit, four plays in total were under review last postseason. The hit that received disciplinary action gave Wilson a three-game suspension for making an illegal hit to the head where the athlete suffered a concussion and broken jaw. Further, this was the only hit that received a hearing with DOPS.[4]


Wilson had an appeal hearing with the NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, on October 18. The decision is anticipated to be released at some point this week. The appeal hearing does not determine whether the hit was legal or illegal but instead will decide whether the discipline was suitable for the conduct. Here, the NHL can do almost whatever they think is necessary: do nothing, reduce the number of games suspended, financially compensate the player, or increase the number of games suspended.[5] Bettman will likely consider a number of different factors in relation to this case to decide how just Wilson’s discipline is. Wilson may have his number suspended games reduced, given that a three to twenty suspended games is a drastic difference. The most important element to consider might be the ongoing legal battle that the NHL is facing with former players for something very similar to the NFL concussion suit. The attention that Wilson has gotten has been primarily negative and reinforces a lot of what the NHL still has to work on changing. [6]


Going forward, Wilson needs to change his game whenever he returns to the ice with his teammates. The NHL has used Wilson’s repeated conduct to make an example of him to others: the NHL is trying to become a safer place. Other athletes should look to this as an example of how not to play. However the NHL comes down on this hearing will be an indicator of how seriously they are disciplining repeatedly aggressive players and the league’s overall attempt at becoming more proactive. Hitting is essential to the nature of hockey but it’s time to keep putting an emphasis on how players can make contact with others in making the NHL a safer place for athletes.



[1] Rotowire Staff, Blues’ Oskar Sundqvist: Moves to IR, CBS Sports (October 2, 2018), https://www.cbssports.com/fantasy/hockey/news/blues-oskar-sundqvist-moves-to-ir/

[2] Cale Ahearn, NHL Suspends Capital’s F Tom Wilson for 20 Games, Fox 43 News (October 9, 2018), https://fox43.com/2018/10/09/nhl-suspends-capitals-f-tom-wilson-for-20-games/

[3] NHL Public Relations, Wilson Suspended 20 Games for Actions in Capitals Game, NHL (October 3, 2018), https://www.nhl.com/news/capitals-tom-wilson-offered-in-person-hearing-for-actions-vs-blues/c-300516698?tid=277549076

[4] Brandon Schlager, Tom Wilson Suspension Timeline: Controversial Capital Has Built Career on Blurring the Lines, Sporting News (October 3, 2018), http://www.sportingnews.com/us/nhl/news/tom-wilson-suspension-timeline-history-fines-capitals-penguins-zach-aston-reese/k3plwl8lfkot11flpw7ah3yf7

[5] Id.

[6] J.J. Regan, Caps Mailbag” The Problem With Tom Wilson’s Appeal, NBC Sports Washington (October 10, 2018), https://www.nbcsports.com/washington/capitals/caps-mailbag-problem-tom-wilsons-appeal

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