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Wilson Needs to Make a Decision... or NHL Needs to Make It for Him

October 2, 2018, 4:58 PM ET [22 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
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This has been a rough last few days for my family and me. My son Max was playing in a game where he got felled by a head-high hit. Thankfully, he was only shaken and not stirred. No concussion and no symptoms. He was checked out on Saturday and cleared by Brigham and Women's Neurology protocols. The kid who hit him got a three-game suspension.

Needless to say, the topic of head-targeting hits has been very much atop my mind again the last few days. My sympathy level for those who hit that way is at a very low ebb. I'm sick of it.

Tomorrow, Tom Wilson will have an in-person hearing at the NHL offices in New York. He will likely be suspended for six or more games for his head-high check on Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues in a preseason game on Sunday.

I like a good, solid LEGAL bodycheck as much as anyone, including open ice hits. However, I cannot abide reckless hits where the purpose is not to separate the recipient from the puck so much as it to separate him from his head. Wilson has done this sort of thing, over and over again in his career. There is no attempt to coach him to distinguish between a tough-but-legal hit and a dangerous-and-illegal one. Like it or hate it, there is no such thing anymore as a legal check where the head is targeted, arm tucked or not.

Along with Boston's Brad Marchand, Wilson has entered the category of the Raffi Torres or Matt Cook type of serial offender. Plain and simple, Wilson has to decide if he wants to be a hockey player or a kamikaze pilot. If he doesn't make a decision, the NHL needs to make it for him with the type of draconian bans that were given to Cooke and Torres.

I'm not optimistic that Wilson will learn a thing from the upcoming suspension. The chances of future incidents are quite high.He has been taught that even his most reckless actions are appreciated by the team -- which is why a guy who has never scored as many as 15 goals in a season or topped 35 points was recently rewarded with a six-year contract extension with a $5.17 million cap hit. Of course he has no respect for the line between tough and reckless play. Why would he? He gets praised, gets more ice time and gets a huge raise for being more and more reckless.

Having watched Wilson's career, while I think he's improved somewhat as a player when he actually decides to play the game, I believe former Capitals head coach Barry Trotz (now with the Islanders) did him a disservice in the big picture by failing to coach Wilson to stay on the right side of the discipline line. Trotz constantly came up with alibis and defenses for Wilson when he would cross the line and then talk up what a special player he is.

I like and respect Trotz overall, and congratulate him and the Capitals for winning the Stanley Cup last season. I also believe that there are opposing players who are intimidated by Wilson when he's on the ice. It's for the wrong reasons, though. Make no mistake: Trotz had a hand in creating a monster over his years together with Wilson. Wilson's behavior has been reinforced so many times over with praise from his coach that officials have to keep a constant eye on him -- which also leads to a certain percentage of "reputation calls" on borderline plays. It also created a situation whereby new Capitals coach Todd Reirden has that much more of a difficult challenge on his hands to prevent Wilson from turning into a diminishing returns player moving forward.

My prediction is that Wilson hasn't seen his last in-person hearing with the NHL.


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. Visit his official website at YaWannaGo.com.
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