November 28, 2020

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.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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