The appeals process isn’t necessarily over. The NHL Players' Association, working on behalf of Wilson, has seven days to appeal to a neutral arbitrator. Wilson was set to miss his ninth game Thursday night, and it’s possible he will have already served the bulk of his suspension by the time a neutral arbitrator rules.
Getting games back in an appeal could have significant financial ramifications. Wilson forfeited roughly $1.2 million as part of the discipline, 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.
Bettman wrote in the concluding section of his ruling: “In my judgment, a 20 regular-season game suspension assessed to Mr. Wilson reflects and accounts for appropriately the unique combination of factors involved in this case, including the gravity of the offense, Mr. Wilson’s prior disciplinary record (particularly within the relatively short period of time in which it was amassed), the multiple warnings and guidance he has received from the DPS, and the seriousness of Mr. Sundqvist’s injury.”
According to Bettman’s 31-page ruling, the players' association’s “primary argument” was that there was no violation of Rule 48, which covers illegal checks to the head, so there shouldn’t have been supplemental discipline of any kind. Specifically, Wilson and the NHLPA argued that Sundqvist’s head wasn’t the “main point of contact” and that the contact was unavoidable within the parameters of Rule 48. They also asserted that, even if Wilson had delivered an illegal check to the head, a 20-game suspension was “excessive,” and when Bettman asked what length of suspension the hit warranted, the players' association suggested eight games.
But Bettman agreed with the Department of Player Safety that Wilson violated Rule 48. According to Bettman’s ruling, while Wilson testified that “he could not have done anything differently to avoid checking” Sundqvist, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan, who attended the hearing, said Wilson “had options” to avoid head contact.
Bettman wrote, “Even if I accept that Mr. Wilson did not intend to make head contact with Mr. Sundqvist or attempt to injure him, the fact of the matter was that the check was intentional — it was not accidental.” Bettman pointed out that in October 2017, Wilson met with George Parros, the head of the Department of Player Safety, and Parros traveled to Toronto this August “to meet one-on-one with Mr. Wilson again to provide him with feedback on his style of play, and to advise him on how to make necessary adjustments to his game that might help to avoid or minimize the likelihood of him executing illegal and dangerous checks.”
After Wilson was suspended three playoff games for an illegal check to the head of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese during last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals, his check on Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault during the Stanley Cup finals prompted Parros to call Wilson and warn him “to make better decisions in the timing and selection of his checks,” Bettman wrote. He concluded that a fourth suspension meant Wilson was “not getting the message,” which reinforced that a 20-game ban “was necessary and appropriate and supported by clear and convincing evidence.”
Players have had more success with a neutral arbitrator than with Bettman. Nashville forward Austin Watson recently had his 27-game ban for domestic abuse reduced to 18 games by Shyam Das, the same arbitrator who would rule on Wilson’s case if it gets that far. In 2016, Dennis Wideman was suspended 20 games for abuse of an official, and a neutral arbitrator reduced the ban to 10 games. The process took a month and a half, and Wideman had already served 19 games of his suspension.
This was Wilson’s fourth suspension dating from last preseason, and the Department of Player Safety described a fourth incident in 105 games, including preseason and playoffs, as “an unprecedented frequency of suspensions in the history” of the department, which is what led to the harsh ruling.
Wilson played the majority of last season on the Capitals' top line with captain Alex Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and he is coming off a career year with 14 goals and 21 assists. The Capitals rewarded him with a six-year deal this summer, and while the team has encouraged his physical play in the past, this suspension might be a force for change. Wilson is practicing with the team during its western Canada road swing this week.
“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,” Wilson said last week. “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.”
As part of Bettman’s conclusion, he wrote that a 20-game suspension might “be the only effective way to deter Mr. Wilson’s future ‘bad conduct.’ "
“I hope that this decision will serve as an appropriate ‘wake-up call’ to Mr. Wilson, causing him to reevaluate and make positive changes to his game,” Bettman wrote.
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