At practice on Wednesday, Tom Wilson returned to his rightful spot on the top line after a three-game stint on the sidelines.
“It’s really tough sitting in Pittsburgh with their fans,” Wilson said. “I was taking absolute abuse from everyone around me, and I can’t go out and play with my guys.”
But, to be expected, most of the 12-minute discussion at the media scrum was not about his time in hockey purgatory but rather the play that put him there.
In Game Three of the Capitals’ second round series against the Penguins, Wilson leveled Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese, a play which the Department of Player Safety determined was an illegal hit to the head.
In the video accompanying the announcement of the suspension, the Department of Player Safety states that Wilson could have stayed “low and hitting through Aston-Reese’s core.” Instead, Wilson “extends up and into the hit unnecessarily, rising up onto the toes of his skates then coming completely off the ice through contact.” On top of that, DoPS argues that “the head was the main point of contact on a hit where such contact was avoidable.”
“From what I’ve heard, if you’re picking the head, the head snaps back independent from the body, and all that,” Wilson said. “But in that body check, our bodies are met, his head snaps down with his body, goes back with the same motion as his body, which indicates a full-body hit. It means I didn’t pick his head.”
Agree with him or not, it’s clear Wilson knows what he’s talking about. He met with DoPS along with Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan earlier in the season. He’s read the rulebook. And he’s watched the videos. Lots and lots of videos.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I think we’re trying to get any type of injury to the head out of the game. But it’s tough to be going about that change in the playoffs. I mean, I don’t want to talk about it too much, but I’ve studied it, I’ve watched a lot of the videos, and I’m trying to adapt my game. At no point did I think I was going to be in trouble for that hit, let alone three games.”
Wilson, obviously, disagrees with his suspension. But, at the same time, he knows he can’t put himself in such a situation again.
“I gotta be adapting, I gotta be changing with the times here,” Wilson said. “It’s just tough when you see other examples from other hits where, maybe, the outcome is a guy injured, but then they indicate a full-body check.”
The question, then, is how to adapt. Wilson wants to play his trademarked energetic, physical game, but the league is paying attention to him.
“I gotta make sure that I’m finishing very low, making sure that I don’t give them the opportunity to analyze it in extreme slo-mo and see that there might be a little bit of contact other than the shoulder,” he said.
While Wilson is skeptical about his suspension, he does realize this is the way the league is going.
“I mean, the game’s changing. I think anyone that’s watched hockey can admit that the game’s changing,” Wilson said. “Those big collisions, the league’s making us aware that they don’t want those anymore.”
Starting Friday night, we’ll see just how well Wilson has adapted.
Do you need to change anything following your suspension?
Tom Wilson: “Yeah. It’s a tough one, it’s a tough question. It’s an intense time of year, it’s a physical time of year. I obviously didn’t really agree with the ruling. So, I think that I don’t want to talk too much about that specific example. I’ve watched almost every hit that the department has reviewed this year. Stuff they talk about, which way the head snaps when it’s hit and all that. I couldn’t see where they came up with the ruling on that one, just a little bit confused. But, from what I’ve heard, if you’re picking the head, the head snaps independent from the body, and all that. But in that body check, our bodies are met, his head snaps down with his body, goes back with the same motion as his body, which indicates a full-body hit. It means I didn’t pick his head. If I picked his head, it would snap differently from the body and that would be the primary point of contact.
“You know what, it’s tough. Obviously, I’m a repeat offender. I gotta be adapting, I gotta be changing with the times here. It’s just tough when you see other examples from other hits where, maybe, the outcome is a guy injured but then they indicate a full-body check. So, it’s unfortunate that he got hurt, that he broke his jaw on the play. You know, he looked at me. He trajected [sic] even more up that I even did, I think. And you know, in hockey, when a guy looks at you and takes a stride and gets his shoulder ready, you know, I’m prepared for a big impact there. He’s trying to hit me as hard as I’m trying to hit him. You know, I’ve got a little extra weight and some more size.
“I think his jaw is about half an inch from his shoulder there. He’s leaning up like this [he imitates]. I go right through his shoulder, primary point, and obviously there’s going to be… I mean, it’s physics. And whatever you want to call it.
“It’s tough. I think we’re trying to get any type of injury to the head out of the game. But it’s tough to be kind of going about that change in the playoffs. I mean, I don’t want to talk about it too much, but I’ve studied it, I’ve watched a lot of the videos, and I’m trying to adapt my game. At no point did I think I was going to be in trouble for that hit, let alone three games.
“It sucked. It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my hockey career to watch those three games. You know, I’m extremely proud of the guys, to step up and get the job done. You know, that’s what a hockey team is all about. Guys stepping up that… I mean [Nathan Walker] has toured the world this year, he’s been on waivers twice, you know, he steps up, has a great game for us with Nick [Backstrom], [Andre Burakovsky], and myself out.
“You know, it’s over now. I think maybe this summer I’ve dive myself more into it. But, you know, I think it’s important, I hope Zach’s getting a little bit better. Unfortunate the outcome of the hit, but I don’t think it was a malicious hit. It was a body check and I did everything I could to lower my center of gravity down to his level. I put myself in, probably, more vulnerable a spot to lean over and present my shoulder-on-shoulder there. And, you know, that was a big collision. It’s a contact sport. I think all of us as players have been on the receiving end of those hits. A big body check, that’s the nature of the game. It’s a tough one, it’s a tough example to kind of analyze and figure out exactly – because I don’t think I’m picking the head. I don’t think it’s Rule 48. So I don’t know… it’s a little bit different, it’s a really tough one to analyze.”
What do you need to adapt?
Tom Wilson: “I’m going to go talk to my trainer in the offseason. I don’t know. Everyone’s working as hard as they can to get big and strong these days and that’s a big hit. I think he’s a smaller guy. I was so focused on that hit, to come around and present body-on-body and try and get my shoulder directly on his shoulder. I’m obviously under the microscope in that series and I’m going in to make a big hit and I’m trying to do everything that I can to make sure that I present a north-south hit. Get my shoulder right on his shoulder as the primary point of contact, and the outcome was a little unfortunate because it’s a big hit. I mean, I go flying into the bench. He’s a thick smaller guy, you know? That was a big hit. I felt it too. But, you know, I’ve gotta make sure that I’m finishing checks low, I mean, through the core. That’s what I heard from the video.
“I don’t know any guy, talking to [Devante Smith-Pelly] and [Brooks Orpik], how many people finish through the core? You’re looking for that shoulder. It’s a body check, you know? You’re looking for that shoulder, and I’ve made a lot of hits in my career. I was what, fourth in the league in hits, I went the whole year without any… you know, that’s a lot of clean body checks and I trust myself. Sometimes there’s big ones that, I mean, that’s what the department is there for, to protect each other, protect the players. They did their job there. It’s tough. I gotta make sure that I’m finishing very low, making sure that I don’t give them the opportunity to analyze it in extreme slo-mo and see that there might be a little bit of contact other than the shoulder.”
How happy are you that there’s a lot more hockey to play?
Tom Wilson: “Yeah, I think I might have been the happiest guy in the building, besides [Ovechkin] maybe. [laughs] Like I said, it’s really tough sitting in Pittsburgh with their fans. I was taking absolute abuse from everyone around me, and I can’t go out and play with my guys. So much goes into it all season long. You play every game in the season, you do everything, every practice, training camp, everything is to get ready for the playoffs. And then I get handed a three-game suspension in the playoffs. That’s a lot of important hockey to be missing. So, that was extremely painful.
“Not an easy city to do it in. A pretty vocal fanbase for sure. I got some mail this morning. I’m going to have to screen the packages that come in with my name on them. [laughs] But, you know, it’s fun. The competitor in me, the antagonist in me is happy to see us do that in overtime in Pittsburgh and, you know, walk out of there on top. Give a lot of credit to their guys, they’re a very talented team, but I’m in our corner here. The guys that stepped up and did the job, you know, I’m extremely proud of them. It was awesome to see.”
How important was support from your teammates and the community?
Tom Wilson: “Yeah, you know what… teammates, obviously, you know, are going to have your back. [Oshie] is a guy that plays the game hard, he’s an honest player. He analyzes the game, obviously, very well. He spoke his words; I think he did a very good job of analyzing that hit. I mean, I had players from around the league, opponents, former players, former teammates, GMs, people of different leagues reaching out to me. When you get that kind of backing, when the players have each other’s backs, it’s different. You know it’s a bad hit when the other guys on your team are going like, ‘come on man, maybe that wasn’t the best play.’ When you’re getting texts from opponents from around the league and then former players, guys that watch the games for a living and guys that played the game hard for a long time, saying, ‘hey, keep playing your game, we think that’s a clean hit,’ it’s tough.
“There’s a lot of support from the hockey world on that. I think anyone that I’ve known through hockey respects that I’m going to go play the game hard and I’m not intending to hurt anyone. I like to think I’m an honest player. The first four years of my career, you know, I hit and then I had to fight. I defend myself and that’s the way in my mind that the game has always been intended to be played. But, the game is changing, and I think you’re going to be seeing over the next, maybe, year or two that there’s stuff, maybe, rules applied. Right now, I’m just a little bit confused as to the rules currently and that suspension I was a little bit confused. Moving forward I gotta be sure that I’m playing very clean and within the rules.”
Do you have to shy away from some of those hits now?
Tom Wilson: “I think it’s important for my team, for us… you know, it’s a big part of the playoffs, is energy and physicality. I mean, there’s a guy on Tampa who comes flying down the wall and jumps four feet in the air and takes a guy out. There’s some reckless hits out there. I’m a bigger guy. There’s more force being driven through my hits so I have to be more careful. It is what it is. I think if the majority of our team makes that hit, it’s just a big collision. Maybe there’s no broken jaw on that play. You know, stuff like that.
“I gotta be more careful for sure. And I respect everyone at the Department. They’re doing a good job to make the game a safer place. I just got to work with them and make sure that I can’t put my team down, I can’t be out of the lineup. I want to play with energy, I want to play the same way, I want to make sure I’m finishing checks. Like I said, I think those big collisions… I mean, the game’s changing. I think anyone that’s watched hockey can admit that the game’s changing. Those big collisions, the league’s making us aware that they don’t want those anymore. That’s an open-ice, north-south, shoulder-on-shoulder primary-contact-point hit, and I get three games for it. I think they’re making it clear that they don’t want that type of collision in the game anymore. I gotta make sure that I’m keeping that shoulder really low and then making sure that I’m finishing through the body and making sure that I’m very careful.”
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