October 20, 2020

OPINION: Wilson’s hit the type league should legislate out of the game

The NHL Department of Player Safety issued its decision about Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson’s hit Tuesday night on the Philadelphia Flyers’ Brayden Schenn, saying that no supplemental discipline would come as a result of the play.

My opinion of the matter was well documented in my column that evening. I am quite surprised that Wilson did not receive supplemental discipline. While Brendan Shanahan’s explanation is thorough and exhausting, I still believe the hit was unnecessarily violent and should not be tolerated in the game.

In my interpretation of the play, Wilson was neither forechecking or playing good hockey; he was looking to drive Schenn through the boards — which he did — in an effort to simply deliver a noticeable big hit. The on-ice officials saw fit to award a major penalty and game misconduct to Wilson, which I agree with fully.

Obviously, the league and Caps brass don’t agree with my assessment of the play.

Also, and this is a pretty fine point to make, but there’s a huge difference between a “legal” hit by the definition of the rule book and a dangerous one that should be eliminated from the game nonetheless. Wilson had to know that if he delivered the hit in the manner he did that the primary consequence would be Schenn’s limp body being thrown into the end boards. Schenn was very clearly skating parallel to the goal line and was just primed to be driven into the boards as the result of this hit.

Wilson disregarded the dangerous aspect of his actions and carried through with the hit regardless.

Just image if this was Zac Rinaldo hitting Nick Backstrom in this manner. Only you can answer how your opinion might change or not were the situation reversed.

This is not to say I believe that Wilson is a “dirty” player, or that this was a “dirty” hit. I don’t believe Wilson attempted this play with the intent on injuring Schenn. What I do think is that this play was dangerous and violent and could have resulted in catastrophic injury for Schenn. It is those types of plays that I very much believe the league should try to legislate out of the game.

By failing to impose supplemental discipline to Wilson, the league is sanctioning the type of play Wilson engaged in, setting a precedent for these hits to continue to be “legal”, despite the danger they pose to the players on the ice. I get that hockey is a contact sport at this level, and a significant portion of the fan base enjoys the violent aspects of the game. I’m not espousing that the league be legislated into a non-contact league.

But I am perfectly happy to sacrifice some of the violence in this league to make it safer and to promote the hockey aspects of the game instead of the violence. And I believe the type of play Wilson engaged in is part of the dangerous and unnecessary violence in the league.

I guess it all depends on what kind of hockey you want to watch.

I’m afraid I’m in the vast minority on this point. I hope that we never have to see a day where we’re writing an obituary for a player who dies on the ice from a hit such as this.

Defense of Wilson’s hit part of lingering problem of violence in NHL

(Ed. — I realize this column is going to have its detractors. I hope that if you choose to leave a comment, it will be respectful and based on rational and reasoned thought — as the effort to write it has been.)

Tom Wilson is a young player trying to make a name for himself in the NHL. He’s not playing very many minutes, and he’s not being asked to play in many high-leverage situations. So he tries to do what many young players before him have done — play tough.

Wilson is big, strong and a good skater, which is a good formula for an NHL power forward. But his limited ice time and lower-level linemates have relegated him to an enforcer position with the Caps. Wilson throws his weight around when he gets a shift, trying to make an impact with his physical play, or occasionally he gets into a scrap in an effort to ignite a spark under his sometime spark-less teammates.

But Tuesday night Wilson went too far.

His hit on Brayden Schenn was reckless and dangerous, the very definition of “charging” in the NHL rulebook.

The fact that Schenn turned from the hit, putting himself in a more dangerous position to absorb the hit, only made matters worse. Schenn is lucky he wasn’t decapitated after Wilson drove through him at full speed and drove him into the end boards head-first.

Wilson will certainly get a call from the league office for a suspension hearing, and I’d be surprised if the young forward didn’t get an extra 3-5 games off surrounding the holiday break.

If it ended there, that would be one thing. The league plays lip service to the idea of quelling unneeded violence in the league, yet allows instances (like Ray Emery assaulting Braden Holtby the last time these teams met in Philadelphia) pass without any review, let alone suspension.

These types of hits are what the league is trying to crack down on — the ugly, head-first-into-the-boards kinds that ultimately, with the size and speed of players in the league today (like Wilson), will result in someone breaking their neck and dying on the ice.

What adds to the problem is the underlying need for coaches and executives to try to defend their player in the court of public opinion in an effort to sway the fickle finger of justice from the league. Both Adam Oates and George McPhee publicly went out of their way Tuesday night to address the incident in the media.

“I thought it was a clean hit,” Oates said. “I really do. I watched it live; saw it on the Jumbotron; I watched it again between periods. [Wilson] went across the ice, he slowed down, he saw Schenn come out of the pile with the puck, he took two quick strides, Schenn saw him at the last second and he hit him in the arm. He’s a big, strong guy. He hit him hard, yeah. To me, it’s a clean hit. I don’t think it’s a penalty at all.”

Oates obviously feels like part of his job is to defend his player. I suppose that’s justified. But anyone that follows hockey has to know that this specific type of hit — full speed on a player who is not facing the skater — is a dangerous, potentially injurious violent hit.

Imagine for a second that the exact scenario happened on the other end of the ice. Imagine if it were Steve Downie who came full speed right off the bench, made a bee line for one of the Caps’ defenders skating parallel along his own goal line, and hit him shoulder-to-shoulder in a manner that launched that defender head-first into the end boards.

Caps fans would be screaming to the high heavens for all manners of suspension, and some wouldn’t be happy with the level of discipline unless it approached castration.

NHL hockey is inherently violent and the physical play is encouraged by hard-line and old school executives and adored by a large segment of fans that appreciate that part of the entertainment value of the game above all else. The problem is two-fold: 1) Athletes are bigger and stronger than ever before, and; 2) The actual NHL-level talent is spread water-thin across a league that is probably bloated by 8-10 teams.

Most rosters have a half-dozen players that feel like they only way they can get recognized is to straddle that thin line between playing hard and playing reckless.

Usually, the results are a few hard hits a night, ice packs and lingering (hidden from the public) concussion-like symptoms for these poor brutes trying to make a living in a league they aren’t qualified to play in.

Unfortunately, sometimes the results are what happened Tuesday, when Wilson ran over Schenn at full-speed and drove him into the end boards, forcing in his coach and GM to defend and perpetuate cycle of violence.

Wilson has exhibited enough talent at the Junior level that folks think he’ll be a fine NHL player. As I mentioned, he has the size, speed and skating ability to succeed. Hopefully this season of playing five minutes a night trying to make a name for himself won’t do just that for the wrong reasons and hinder his future potential as a skilled, two-way player.

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