It’s hard to reconcile the way Tom Wilson talks about his brand of hockey, and the way his critics talk about it. Here, for example, was the Caps fourth-line forward last week, discussing his controversial hit on Islanders defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky.
“Whenever I make a body check, I’m trying to make sure I’m doing everything as clean as possible, staying on my feet and finishing hard and low through the guy’s body,” Wilson said then. “You never want to see a guy go down like that, but it’s a hard enough sport and it’s a hard-hitting sport, so that’s going to happen.”
And here are things that have been written about Wilson in the New York Post over the last few weeks.
* “The odds of the Capitals getting under [the Rangers’] skin are almost zilch, but that doesn’t mean guys such as Tom Wilson — a wild-eyed instigator with little regard for his health or that of those on the ice with him — won’t try to make a difference.” (Brett Cyrgalis, April 28)
* “The Capitals’ Tom Wilson is a predator who preys on defenseless opponents like the Islanders’ Lubomir Visnovsky, whom he finished off with an unnecessarily violent check in Tuesday’s Game 4 at the Coliseum.” (Larry Brooks, April 25)
* “This is nothing new for Wilson, who seems to play without regard or respect for the opposition, and who rarely confronts a foe straight-up and head-on. He is a fourth-line freight train who has made a career of coming at opponents when they are most vulnerable. If there was any remorse for the hurt he put on the much-concussed Visnovsky, Wilson must have kept it to himself.” (Larry Brooks, April 25)
* “Boy, that Tom Wilson of the Caps has sure made a splash in the NHL, hasn’t he?” (Larry Brooks, March 29)
* “Has Tom Wilson, the Caps’ forward who never hits straight up, instead always coming from the blindside, gotten up yet from the embarrassing dive he took at center ice on which he lay prone, face down, for seconds after he was interfered with by Dominic Moore on Wednesday in D.C.? Seriously, it was one of the more pathetic displays you could see on an NHL rink.” (Larry Brooks, March 15)
Wilson seemed a bit taken aback when read some of these quotes Wednesday morning, after the Caps’ final practice before heading to New York.
“I mean, at the end of the day you go down the line and shake the Islanders’ hands,” he said. “Everyone on that side understands what I’m doing. We’re players, we all play the game. People that are writing it aren’t players. Most of them have never played. A lot of the guys that have played — guys that are on panels, TSN — I didn’t hear one of those guys going on a huge rant. They all played the game; they understand it’s a fast game, it’s a hard-hitting game. Those hits are going to happen.
“I’m not trying to hurt anyone,” Wilson went on. “I just want to play the game hard and make their lives difficult. And yeah, it was a huge hit, but once in a while there’s a big collision in hockey. That’s the way it works. It’s not that I’m a predator trying to take out guys. I’m just trying to leave my mark and make sure that when I’m forechecking, they don’t have an easy out.”
Wilson spoke on the topic for several minutes, spurred by questions from a couple of reporters. He knew he had been criticized in New York — “you always have a little bit popping up on your news feed if you’re cruising on Twitter and stuff like that” — but he repeatedly rejected the idea that he was trying to cause injuries.
“I never want to hurt anyone,” he said. “That’s never my goal. My goal is just to win the hockey game and get on the defense and make their lives difficult. I mentioned to a couple of the [Islanders] coaching staff in the handshake [line], I wish Visnovsky all the best. I know he’s an older guy. I have so much respect for him. He’s obviously been injury-prone. But at the end of the day, he’s playing. He knows how fast the game is, he knows how hard the hits are.
“It’s the fastest game in the world and probably the hardest-hitting game in the world, so those hits are gonna happen. I mean, guys that have played the game on panels and stuff, they’re not freaking out about it, they’re not calling me a predator. They understand that it was a pretty clean body check — just really hard. And that’s the game that we love, and that’s the game that we play. I never want to go out and injure guys, but I’m gonna play as hard as I can, within the rules.”
The within the rules thing is tricky. The Visnovsky hit was penalized; some would argue that it was by definition against the rules. And a few New York media members I spoke with last week said they thought Wilson deserved a major penalty for the hit, and maybe more than that. Wilson disagreed, pointing out that he wasn’t subject to supplemental discipline from the league, and that he was doing his job.
“I think if you watch that hit, anyone that knows hockey knows that pretty much it’s as clean a hit as it can possibly be,” he said. “I mean, if you go down the rule checklist, you can check off, I stayed on my feet, wasn’t a charge, one crossover, finished through the body, didn’t target the head.”
These are obviously subjective things. I’ve talked to people who insisted that Wilson did target the head, and to different people who argued that the contact was a result of the height difference between the two men and a ducking motion from Visnovsky. Rational, sensible, thoughtful people, on both sides, just do not see this the same way.
Either way, Wilson’s play over the next few games will be heavily scrutinized — certainly in at least one New York paper. The 21-year old said it wouldn’t change the way he plays.
“They can write whatever they want,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m the one playing, I’m the one in the playoffs with a great team, and we’re trying to win. It’s pretty funny to read, and no need to even acknowledge it. They can write whatever they want. They’re trying to sell papers and stuff like that. You can only pay so much attention to that stuff.”