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The Big-Picture Issue with the Latest Tom Wilson Incident

December 3, 2018, 2:59 AM ET [32 Comments]
Paul Stewart
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Washington Capitals winger Tom Wilson escaped (temporarily, because future incidents are almost certainly on the way) another supplementary discipline hearing from the NHL's Department of Player Safety. The primary reason he was let off this time was that Brett Seney's head was not contacted on the play.

No, there was no direct head contact. However, it was still a dirty hit. The two things are not always interdependent. Here's why:

1) The puck was long gone. It was a very late hit that served absolutely no hockey purpose. Seney was not fair game for even a legal check.

2) It was delivered from the blindside. Seney had no way to defend himself. This was not a case of a player putting himself in a vulnerable spot. After his breakaway attempt, he made a routine hockey play, tucking puck back into the corner from open ice. Wilson's actions were not a hockey play.

3) Wilson traveled a long way, and it was a drive-by hit that Wilson easily could have avoided. The "things happen fast out there" argument does not apply in this case given how long the puck had been gone and how far Wilson skated.

Now, as someone who has become all-too-familiar with concussions over the years from my playing and officiating days, let me lay three facts on those who say that the fact there was no concussion, no head contact, and not a particularly forceful hit means that it was not worthy of a match penalty or a hearing for potential supplementary discipline.

Fact number one: It is possible to sustain a concussion without a direct blow to the head.

Fact number two: In this case, the absence of a head injury was luck of the draw on the aftermath of the hit. I've seen plenty of similar blindside and/or late hits where there wasn't head contact from the hit itself but the player's head struck the ice as he fell.

Fact number three: It is possible to sustain a concussion without the blow that causes it being exceptionally violent. No, I don't want to see all hitting taken out of the game; just reckless and illegal hits that serve no purpose from a hockey standpoint. That definition would certainly include, from my point of view, a late blindside hit in which the player supplying the energy of the traveled a long distance across the ice.

Note that, until this point, I had not even taken into consideration Wilson's long history of reckless hits that have been head shots or otherwise predatory hits. Hell, he's just come off an arbitrator-reduced suspension that the NHL got right in the first place. He's learned nothing about when and how it is OK to check or jostle an opponent and when you can't. For that, I blame Wilson's coaches over the years. They never taught him.

Along those lines, here is something that is not getting talked about in this whole situation: Washington coach Todd Reirden's bush league response on the bench and in his postgame press conference. He had no reason to be so agitated. The referees absolutely made the right call.

There is not a 30-team Rule Book in a league of 31 teams, Todd. If your own player was the one hit late and from the blindside, would you be playing the "it was an accident" and "it wasn't even a 'bad' hit" game under the identical circumstances? If there was no call, you'd be just fine with it, I presume? Or would you instead be arguing the case for some other team's player who received a match penalty and gladly be a character witness for the guy if it some other team's serial recidivist on dirty plays such as, say, Brad Marchand?

The answer: of course he wouldn't.

This type of thing is hardly exclusive to the Washington coach. Coaches everywhere perpetuate the problem twice over by a) incorrectly assuming that their players know how and when to hit and when not to hit (it's not just about technique, either, but I also see a lot of pros with poor technique on both the delivery end and in knowing how to receive a hit), and b) flipping out and then defending "their guy" if an official deigns to make the correct call such as this case.

It's not a Washington Capitals issue. It's not an NHL issue. It's not even about Tom Wilson. It's about player safety and respect. That is all I have to say about that; for now, at least.

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Today, December 2, is 22 days away from Christmas. In conjunction with that, I'm having a special one-day 22 percent discount on paperback editions of "Ya Wanna Go?" purchased through my official website. The book is also available online from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and numerous other outlets, but I can only offer the coupon through my own site.



A Class of 2018 inductee to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games. Today, Stewart is the director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.

Order Paul's new autobiography, entitled "Ya Wanna Go?" at YaWannaGo.com
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