Tom Wilson Is Hockey’s Chief Villain. Or Is He?

Washington Capitals ahead Tom Wilson, in accordance with a few of his friends, is a menace. A bully. A punk. A goon. He is reckless, vicious, soiled, and dangerous for hockey. He may need slot in 30 years in the past, however his conduct — unlawful checks and excessive hits, on the worth of 5 suspensions in his profession — has no place in at present’s safety-conscious N.H.L.

Tom Wilson, in accordance with others, is a very good dude. A pacesetter. A unifying drive. An glorious teammate. He is considerate, conscientious, attentive, and nice within the Capitals’ locker room. He would have slot in 30 years in the past, however his type — brawny and bodily, with top-six talent and velocity — is all of the extra coveted now because the league’s gamers pattern towards smaller and quicker.

In a brutal sport stuffed with paradoxes, nobody tilts towards the intense greater than Wilson, a 6-foot-Four, 225-pound pile of dynamite whose antics (or efforts) appear to elicit rage (or respect) darn close to each sport. His newest misadventure, a post-whistle scrum with two Rangers on May three, earned him 14 of his league-leading 96 penalty minutes this season, a most $5,000 positive from the division of participant security and indignation throughout hockey’s empire over one other incident that strengthened his standing because the N.H.L.’s chief villain. He additionally had a purpose and an help that evening, as he surged towards essentially the most factors per sport of his profession (zero.70).

As Washington prepares to open the playoffs Saturday at residence towards the Boston Bruins, Wilson’s status trails him like exhaust fumes, at the same time as he professes regret; at the same time as others partaking in harmful or irresponsible play go unscorned and unpunished; and despite the fact that each different workforce would pursue him directly if he turned obtainable — which he gained’t.

As a winger who can skate on a line with the celebs Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and likewise shield them, Wilson, 27, is simply too worthwhile to the Capitals, who for practically a decade have identified what few are prepared to confess about him: He defies straightforward classification.

Tom Wilson was large. Maybe 6-foot-2, 190 kilos, a professional construct already, when at 16 he thundered into the Ontario Hockey League in 2010. “I shook his hand the first time,” mentioned Danny Vanderwiel, a teammate on the Plymouth Whalers, “and thought he was a grizzly bear.”

Competing for ice time with older gamers, Wilson knew get it. As goalie Matt Mahalak recalled, in considered one of Wilson’s first video games he leveled three gamers, pressured a turnover, had a shot on web, prowled the purpose mouth for a rebound and obtained right into a struggle — all on his opening shift.

“We’re all sitting on the bench looking at each other like, ‘Who is this kid?’ We were just so excited that he was on our side and not the other.”

Matt Mahalak, goalie

The O.H.L. is a high main junior league, however few of its gamers, if any, matched Wilson’s mixture of measurement, power and talent. Superb on the forecheck, he intuitively understood how a play would unfold, enabling him to achieve the puck earlier than the defenseman.

“They’d almost get like a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look and see this big body coming at them,” mentioned Brian Sommariva, who was Plymouth’s assistant basic supervisor on the time. “He was taking the exact same route they were taking. Next thing you know, there’s a large collision and a turnover.”

Wilson relished these giant collisions, although one specifically — a clear hit, Sommariva mentioned, that knocked out a smaller participant — left him visibly shaken. On the Plymouth workforce, gamers scratched for video games have been assigned to trace statistics, together with hits, earned when a participant separated an opponent from the puck or checked him out of the play altogether. Invariably, Wilson rated close to the highest.

His time in Plymouth ended with a postseason scoring binge in 2013 — 17 points (and 41 penalty minutes) in 12 games. After barely a week in the minors, Wilson joined the Capitals for Game 5 of their conference quarterfinal matchup against the Rangers. They knew that, at 19, Wilson could mesh on their fourth line, and he did. He clicked even better with his new team.

Tom Wilson was curious. Curious about the unwritten code of conduct, careful not to offend veterans with words and deeds. Curious about his teammates, their interests, their families and their dinner plans. He asked smart questions. He listened.

“He’s just the person everyone else wants to be around. If you’re with a group of five people, and everybody’s feet is pointing toward one person because they’re clearly commanding the attention, Tom is that guy.”

Karl Alzner, Wilson’s teammate in Washington for four years

Karl Alzner called Wilson one of the two best teammates he’d ever had, at any level — Capitals forward T.J. Oshie being the other. In Washington’s dressing room, Wilson’s charismatic benevolence is a force multiplier that unites players regardless of age, nationality or marital status. He defends teammates on the ice and then bonds with them off it. At team meals, he is as likely to eat with rookies as with stars. On the road, he organizes dinners, mindful to include younger and newer players.

“He’s a major connector in that locker room,” said the former assistant coach Reid Cashman, “and why it’s so close.”

Cashman joined the Capitals’ staff in July 2018, a month after the team won its first Stanley Cup. It was his first N.H.L. job, and for an outsider, the room was a bit intimidating. The team was tight, cohered by catharsis, and an invisible boundary separated those who had hoisted the chalice from those who hadn’t. Wilson, one of the first players to introduce himself, eased Cashman’s transition.

That season, Wilson would be Washington’s nominee for the league’s King Clancy Memorial Trophy given annually to a player who has made outstanding humanitarian and community efforts. Wilson worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, among other groups.

“As good of a human, teammate, person that I’ve been around,” Cashman said. “And that’s not hyperbole.”

So much so, Cashman continued, that he could envision Wilson succeeding Ovechkin, 35, as Washington’s captain. When told this, Alzner agreed — “he’s the heartbeat of the team” — but offered a caveat. He wondered whether it would actually happen, because of Wilson’s, you know, reputation.

Tom Wilson was hated. As far back as his rookie season, when he plowed Brayden Schenn headfirst into the boards. The venom spewed then, as it did when Wilson rammed Brian Campbell from behind, in 2015. As it did when he walloped Robert Thomas late, in 2017. And just nine days later, when he boarded a defenseless Sammy Blais. And in 2018, when his shoulder bashed Zach Aston-Reese’s head. Five months later, Wilson flattened Oskar Sundqvist at mid-ice and received a 20-game suspension that would be pared to a still significant 14. It was his fourth suspension in 105 games.

The totality of the carnage inflicted by Wilson — no one has amassed more penalty minutes over the last eight seasons, according to Hockey Reference — has elicited criticism from every stratum of the sport, plus all corners of social media. When Alzner signed with Montreal before the 2017-18 season, his new teammates called Wilson unprintable things. It was his duty, Alzner said, to change their minds, much as he does on Twitter, sending detractors direct messages saying that Wilson is not an outlaw and that they would buy his jersey if he played for their favorite team. Reluctantly, they concur.

Yet Wilson’s pattern of behavior is disturbing. The evidence is compelling. The video clips do look bad. The contact, in some cases, is indefensible. It’s natural to wonder why someone as scrutinized as Wilson, who has met with the league’s department of player safety and promised to adapt, and has also expressed concern for those he has injured, continues to push the limits. Then again, it’s impossible to assign intent. For many, it’s far simpler to make sweeping proclamations and distill Wilson into digestible terms. Like a villain.

“Everyone would die to be 6-foot-4 and be able to beat the piss out of people, but also go and score 20 goals, you know what I mean?

Danny Vanderwiel, former Plymouth Whalers teammate

In hockey, 10 players chase after a puck as fast as they can skate, crashing through whatever stands between them and it. A nebulous standard distinguishes what is tolerated from what isn’t, and the slightest head shift can turn a fair hit ugly in a split second. Wilson has studied his transgressions and has said that he has learned from each suspension.

After his hit on Sundqvist, which Cashman said Wilson watched countless times, he worked with two Washington assistants, Scott Arniel and Blaine Forsythe, on not leading with his stick: If his stick remained on the ice, they told him, then his arms and elbows would stay down, too.

After that Wilson, playing hard but clean, avoided punishment until March, when he was docked seven games for drilling Brandon Carlo of Boston. Then came the events of May 3, when Wilson punched two Rangers forwards, Pavel Buchnevich and Artemi Panarin, and nearly body-slammed Panarin, — who had jumped onto Wilson’s back — and threw him headfirst onto the ice.

The Rangers, in a statement, denounced Wilson’s “horrifying act of violence.” Wilson contacted Panarin. The Capitals, as they have done many times over the last eight years, reminded Wilson to play aggressively but also to remember that everyone was watching him.

Tom Wilson was stuck. Between the player people think he is and the player he wants to be. Between the era when unfettered violence reigned and one in which enforcers are outmoded.

Extrapolating the stats he recorded in this truncated season over 82 games, he would have finished with 58 points and 167 penalty minutes. Only four times has a forward reached those numbers in the last 25 years, according to Hockey Reference.

“They don’t love that he gets suspended and they don’t love that he hurts people sometimes, but he’s so unique, the type of player he is,” Alzner said of the Capitals. “There’s some guys that you could probably turn the page on if they’re not conforming to what the league wants, or what a team wants, but Tom’s not that guy.”

And so Wilson plays on. In a league that would rather he play differently. For a team that likes him just the way he is.

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