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Capitals' Tom Wilson on life while suspended: ‘There’s a lot of learning’

Tom Wilson will have a hearing to appeal his 20-game suspension on Thursday. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Tom Wilson took a seat at his dressing room stall at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility, quietly relishing one of the only things about his routine that feels normal nowadays — sharing the ice with teammates on off days. Even the team’s short road trips are agonizing because he’s not on them. Off the ice, he’s suddenly in constant contact with lawyers as he prepares to appeal his 20-game suspension from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety next week.

“It’s terrible,” Wilson said. “The guys go on a one-day road trip, and it feels like you haven’t seen them in a month.”

A few stalls over, forward T.J. Oshie chimed in, “We miss you, too, Whip!”

Wilson is less than two weeks into his suspension, and pending an appeal, he still has more than a month to go. He’s not eligible to play again until Nov. 21 after his illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in the teams’ preseason finale. Sundqvist is on injured reserve with a concussion and a shoulder injury.

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In the meantime, the NHL Players’ Association has filed an appeal on Wilson’s behalf, and he will have a hearing with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Thursday. The process doesn’t necessarily end after that ruling; Wilson and the NHLPA can then appeal to a neutral arbitrator, but these things tend to drag. Even if the suspension is reduced, it’s possible Wilson will have already served the vast majority of it by the time there’s any sort of resolution.

But a successful appeal could have significant financial ramifications. Wilson forfeited roughly $1.2 million as part of the suspension, based on his contract’s average annual value of $5.17 million, and while he received a signing bonus of $5 million, his actual salary this season is $1.1 million. Unless the suspension is reduced, he won’t see another pay check for the rest of the season.

Speaking to reporters for the first time since his suspension was announced, Wilson was careful with what he said while the appeal process is ongoing, but he addressed his in-limbo situation.

“It’s definitely an experience that you hope you never have to go through,” Wilson said of the appeal. “There’s a lot of learning. All of a sudden you’re surrounded by lawyers and stuff like that. I’m a hockey player and I want to play hockey. … [The appeal is] going to take on the business side of it. I have to focus when I come to the rink every day, and then obviously when something comes up with the situation, I have to address that in the best way that I can.”

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For the past two days, Wilson has done individual work with Dwayne Blais, a skill coach the organization has used for prospect development camps. After Washington had a short summer because of its long run to a franchise-first Stanley Cup, these 20 games are like an extension of the offseason for Wilson. He’s coming off a career year with 14 goals and 21 assists playing primarily on a top line with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and captain Alex Ovechkin. He knows jumping back into that role — or anywhere in the lineup — after such a long period without game action will be a challenge. While it’ll be Game 1 of the regular season for him, the rest of the league will be sharper by Game 21.

“You could describe it as a guy that’s an extra forward or whatever,” Wilson said. “You have to be ready. I’m training like I am today expecting that maybe I’ll be in there tomorrow. I just have to have that mind-set. Obviously, that’s not realistic but that’s something that I’m trying to focus on and improve when I can with skill coaches and stuff like that. Keep my conditioning and work ethic up and keep my focus up in making the right plays in practice and battling hard out there, being a part of the group and staying in the same sort of routine. You have to make sure you do whatever you can so that adjustment period when I come back is short-lived and I’m right back into it.”

Whenever he does get back into the lineup, he’ll continue to be under a player-safety microscope. Wilson’s 20-game ban was so severe because it was his fourth suspension in his past 105 games, dating back to last preseason. The Department of Player Safety referred to that as “an unprecedented frequency,” so another suspension could result in even harsher discipline, perhaps costing him half a season.

He has made a career out of his physical play, but he knows he might have to make significant changes to that part of his game going forward.

“I can talk a little bit more in depth once this is all over with, but yeah, for sure,” Wilson said. “The hitting aspect of the game is definitely changing a little bit, and I’ve got to be smart out there and I’ve got to play within the rules. And at the end of the day, no one wants to be in the situation that I’m in right now. I’ve got to change something because obviously it’s not good to be out and not helping your team.”

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