In Defense of Tom Wilson

Caps fans are still walking on air after the team finally overcame their Game 7 demons and dispatched the Lightning to advance to the fourth round, securing the team’s first shot at the Stanley Cup in 20 years.  It was a dominant performance in all aspects of the game and even the analysts who are paid to pick nits had a hard time finding much negative to say after the final horn sounded.
The one controversy swirling among the fan base today concerns the donnybrook that occurred between Tom Wilson and Braydon Coburn in the first period.  Was it a heroic showing by the team’s enforcer, standing up appropriately for Kuznetsov’s dignity and his team’s honor?  Or was it a bone-headed loss of control by a crucially important top line player who should have known better than to risk ejection in such a significant game?  The answer depends on whom you ask.

Wilson has become a controversial figure in the league this year.  He was the subject of several suspensions, the most devastating of which came during the Round 2 series against the Penguins, when he missed three games due to a borderline legal hit on Zach Aston-Reese.  There have been many other such incidents; brutal hits for which his teammates and fans love him and the rest of league hates him, along with frequent fights during which he cheerfully rains right hooks on his mostly hapless opponents.  But is he really a “dirty” player?  Is his hard, physical style of play and constant eagerness to drop the gloves inappropriate in today’s NHL?  Does it put his team at a disadvantage?  Some local Caps watchers think his behavior in the Game 7 victory was problematic.  I vehemently disagree.
Obviously, hockey has changed since the days of rugged roughnecks playing without helmets.  The increased focus on player safety is a good thing, but there is still a place in the game for the men who give a team it’s identity and band them together through sheer force of personality and will.  The unwritten rules surrounding fighting and hitting still exist, buried deep in the psyche of the game, and although many see players like Wilson as an anachronism, I believe he, and others like him, still have an important role to play in today’s NHL.
With his quick temper and ready smile, Wilson is the heart and soul of this Capitals team.  He isn’t just a goon, although many of his opponents unfairly characterize him that way.  After several years of first fighting for a sweater and then bouncing between lines looking for his place, he took a firm hold on his top line spot this season, playing with two of league’s best players in Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.  He brings an intangible energy and excitement to that group, and his heavy style of play opens up space for his line mates as adversaries are always wary of hard checks while he’s on the ice.  Many of those hits skirt the line, and so the positives he brings are tempered by the number of (sometimes costly) penalties he takes.  He has also become a legitimate offensive threat, notching a career high 14 goals and 21 assists this year.  But it isn’t the numbers that tell the story of Wilson’s true influence on this club.
That brings us to the incident in Game 7.  Wilson has been perhaps a bit less willing than usual to lay heavy hits or otherwise court trouble since his Round 2 suspension, but the situation with Coburn and Kuznetzov begged for intervention from one of the team’s leaders.  After a bit of standard pushing and shoving, Coburn pulled off Evgeny Kuznetzov’s sweater and waved it in Wilson’s direction before tossing it on the ice.  It was as blatantly disrespectful a display as I can imagine in hockey, with the possible exception of licking one’s opponent, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day!  Wilson and Coburn both went off for two minute minors, but the fireworks came when they left the box and immediately began fighting.
The fight was fierce and lengthy, with the officials allowing it to continue until Wilson took Coburn to the ice.  The very fact that they did nothing to intervene and allowed the altercation to play out for so long tells us everything we need to know about its appropriateness.  Coburn was badly in the wrong.  By his behavior with Kuznetzov (who was arguably the best player on the ice), he was begging for the comeuppance he received.  The referees, hockey men themselves, recognized that and allowed Wilson to deliver the much deserved beatdown.  Both players were then penalized with matching majors for fighting and Wilson was not ejected, further reiterating that the officials did not see Wilson’s aggression as being out of line.
Sports are a fiercely competitive enterprise.  The athletes who compete at this level are more than just a team, they are a family, and the way they perceive themselves is reflected in their play.  It’s not just about a fight or a hit, it’s about the way the players feel about themselves and about each other.  It’s about their confidence and willingness to lay it all on the line in the most important moments.  If they are to respect themselves and demand respect from their opponents, someone must be willing to do what is necessary when things go wrong.  Tom Wilson is that and so much more to these Capitals.
He is a leader and I truly believe that on the sad day when the Alexander Ovechkin era comes to an end in this town, Tom Wilson will be the man wearing that C on his sweater.  We will be lucky to have him.
Photos from the NBCSN Feed

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