Tom Wilson suspended seven games: another miss in handling player safety

  

A few weeks ago, I received a text from my sister, an Ann Arbor resident and hockey mom. There was a video of her 17-year-old son, taking a head-shot in his high school hockey game, as well as a texted image of him in the emergency room, a laceration on his forehead, and his eyes dazed and cloudy. The clip was all too familiar: an unsuspecting defenseless player, one who makes no attempt to play the puck, and instead comes with hands and elbows high in an attempt to inflict pain on another individual. Reckless indeed, and sadly what old-school hockey folks still like to defend as a “hockey hit” or “hockey play.” And in that game, it was ok. There was no penalty called on the play and no subsequent discipline for the culprit. It wasn’t fun to watch, as I’m sure it wasn’t fun for my parents to watch my clock get cleaned in high school and college. It’s hard for any parent to watch their kid be on the receiving end of an incident like that, only to see it swept under the rug, deemed “part of the sport.”

Flash forward to Friday night. In a competitive contest between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins. Caps winger Tom Wilson took a run at Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo. His hands were up, he didn’t go for the puck and Carlo’s head was crunched between Wilson’s elbows and an unforgiving pane of glass. Carlo immediately raised both hands to grasp his head and crumbled to the ice. He was helped to the locker room and ultimately the hospital. As happens too often, four on-ice officials failed to react and give Wilson a well-deserved penalty. The tone of the game changed significantly. It became about the Bruins’ vengeance and all commentary shifted to what Wilson’s ultimate punishment should be. Wilson later got into a scrap with Bruin defenseman Jarred Tinordi, in a common methodology known as “on ice policing.” The Bruins rallied and won the game 5-1. But the win seemed trivial at the time and full attention was on Wilson and Carlo’s health.

In the days that followed the Twitter universe exploded, opinions were stated and all in the hockey world shared their thoughts on the matter.

On Saturday, the NHL gave Wilson his fifth career suspension. An all too thin, seven-game sentence, which will see Wilson return to action by the end of the month to help the Caps down the stretch and into the playoffs. Seven? Yes, seven for a player who has four-times been suspended for inappropriate and unsafe play. But the NHL can easily hide behind a rule that they created. Under the current NHL rule, a player is deemed a “repeat offender” if they had a previous suspension within an 18-month time frame. Wilson’s most recent suspension was a 20-game sentence (reduced to 14 after appeal) for an illegal check to the head of Oskar Sundqvist on October 3, 2018. Make sense? No, it doesn’t. It’s ridiculous.

In reality, Wilson is a really good hockey player. He plays hard is a good skater, has two 20-goal seasons under his belt, and is a contributor to a cup contending team. Because of this, people will speculate that is a contributing factor in the NHL’s failure to adequately punish and reprimand a talented but dangerous player.

The reactions to this are many and honestly frustrating. It is pretty remarkable that there is an argument about this at all. But unfortunately, those that believe the outdated argument that this was a “hockey play” or a “hockey hit” are being fed that by some of the game’s credible sources. Take Caps coach Peter Laviolette for example. A decorated coach, possibly headed towards the hockey hall of fame, stood-fast in his defense of Wilson’s play.

Defending your player and indicating that as a coach you will be supportive of him through this is one thing. Defending Wilson’s actions as part of the game is completely different. By defending it and calling it a “hockey hit” makes Laviolette culpable in a major systematic issue in today’s game. By referring to the incident as “part of the game,” the message Laviolette is sending fans, and aspiring youth hockey players and their parents, is that what Wilson did is ok. And it’s not, it’s not even close. And if the aging hockey minds continue to ignore and make excuses for reckless on-ice behavior, the game will not change for the better, nor become safer.

Wilson is 26-years old; he has been suspended five times and has a lot of hockey left in front of him as an NHL player. Has he learned his lesson now; five times later, while missing two and a half weeks of games in 2021 and a minor pay cut to his season? I for one am betting against it. We may see this again from Wilson.

For Carlo, he has recently been released from the hospital and could be in concussion protocol for some time. The up-and-coming blue-liner for the Bruins was having his finest season to date and we can only hope that Friday night’s incident doesn’t significantly alter his career. Bruins’ fans have been here before with Marc Savard, and I am sure this feels all too similar.

For the NHL and hockey in general, it is anyone’s guess as to when people realize that there are considerable issues with how situations like this are interpreted and dealt with. It would be a shame if it came to a more serious injury on a public stage for the league and experts to take another deep dive into player safety. Unfortunately, I am holding my breath, as that in all likelihood, will happen in the foreseeable future.

Center Ice Forums Tom Wilson suspended seven games: another miss in handling player safety

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