ST. PAUL, Minn. — Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension for an illegal check to the head was reduced to 14 games by neutral arbitrator Shyam Das, the NHL announced Tuesday, ending a six-week appeal process. Wilson already served 16 games of the original ban, so he was in the lineup against the Minnesota Wild to make his season debut Tuesday night, skating with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin on Washington’s top line in a 5-2 Capitals victory.
Wilson made his presence felt immediately, scoring his first goal of the season late in the first period and earning a major penalty for fighting Minnesota’s Marcus Foligno in the second.
Wilson also picked up a minor penalty for interference and finished a plus-2 in 16:47 of ice time as Washington ended a two-game skid with a well-rounded performance that handed the Wild its first regulation loss at home.
“It’s a first good day in a while,” Wilson said earlier Tuesday after the Capitals' morning skate at Xcel Energy Center. “I’m obviously pretty excited to play hockey again."
The six-game reduction also saves Wilson roughly $379,000 in lost salary. The NHL Department of Player Safety suspended him on Oct. 3 for a hit on St. Louis’s Oskar Sundqvist in the teams’ preseason finale. That marked Wilson’s fourth suspension in 105 games, including preseason and playoffs. As per the collective bargaining agreement, Wilson’s first appeal through the league’s players' association had to be heard by Commissioner Gary Bettman, and on Oct. 25, Bettman upheld the 20-game ban. As part of Bettman’s 31-page ruling, 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.
Wilson then appealed to a neutral arbitrator, a route historically more favorable to players, and it took Das nearly two weeks to reach his conclusion. Das agreed with Bettman that Wilson’s hit violated Rule 48, with Sundqvist’s head being the main point of contact and the contact being avoidable, but he found fault with the Department of Player Safety’s rationale for a 20-game ban. In the first appeal hearing with Bettman, George Parros, the head of the Department of Player Safety, said Wilson’s three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese in the second round of the playoffs should be treated like six regular-season games. Because the league punishes repeat offenders more seriously, Parros then multiplied that by three for Wilson’s fourth suspension and added two games for Sundqvist’s injuries, a concussion and shoulder malady, to land at 20 games.
But in reviewing the past suspensions of Raffi Torres in 2012 and Patrick Kaleta in 2013, Das concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to support Parros’s multiplier of three. As a result, he used a multiplier of two to get to 12 games, then added two more for the injuries. The players' association had argued that Wilson shouldn’t receive a suspension of more than eight games even if he was guilty of violating Rule 48, which it contended he wasn’t.
“For a while, you wake up every day and you just hope; you hope, you hope, you hope there’s word,” Wilson said of the appeal. “Then you get to the point where you’re like, you know what, I’m just looking at [Nov. 21, when the original 20-game suspension would’ve been up], and if anything happens before that, great, but I’ll be ready. I tried to do everything I could that if this did happen — I wake up this morning and at 8:30, I get news — I’ve got to be ready to play. It was definitely a unique experience, one that you don’t ever want to go through, but eye-opening."
In Bettman’s ruling last month, he pointed out that 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.” Parros testified that he agreed with the players' association that Wilson didn’t have an intent to injure Sundqvist. On Tuesday morning, Wilson was asked if he’s concerned he could be branded as a “dirty player.”
“I think it’s probably already happened,” he said. “It doesn’t really sit well with me. I never wanted to be put in that category when I grew up playing. I never wanted my name to be associated that way, and at the end of the day, thinking back on it, it’s all happened pretty quick. I never really had that reputation, and all of a sudden, there’s a couple incidents and people are pretty upset. It is what it is. There’s a spotlight on that part of the game right now. I think everyone knows that the physical play is definitely going down a little bit; there’s not as many hits, and the game is getting faster and more skilled. When there are those big hits, it becomes such a hot topic that it just gets instantly scrutinized."
The players' association had also argued in its appeal that NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly improperly attempted to influence the Department of Player Safety as it weighed Wilson’s case, citing an email Daly sent to Parros in late September.
“Looks like a big one. The Emergency Assistance Fund is going to be happy,” Daly wrote in the email, referring to Wilson’s forfeited salary. Because of the $5.17 million average annual value of his contract, a 20-game ban meant Wilson initially forfeited $1.2 million in salary.
But Das wrote that he was “not persuaded” Daly had attempted to improperly influence the process, noting that the deputy commissioner had already been copied on emails in which Department of Player Safety personnel argued that Wilson had violated Rule 48.
Wilson is coming off a career season, with 14 goals and 21 assists playing on a first line opposite Ovechkin, and the team rewarded his performance with a six-year, $31 million deal this past summer. He resumed his first-line post immediately, but after what the Department of Player Safety has called “an unprecedented frequency of suspensions” in its history, Wilson’s big-hitting, physical style will continue to be scrutinized.
“He’s unfortunately going to have to change his game a little bit because of his size and strength and speed,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “It’s probably going to be a little uncomfortable. If someone came up to me and told me I have to change the way I play, now you’re thinking about that instead of thinking about whatever plays you have to make. He’s a mature kid, he’s a smart kid, and I think he’ll find other ways to be successful. But we still expect him to be the same physical player. He’s a presence on the ice, and we can’t lose that in his game.”
Said Wilson: “It’s just going to be putting myself in a good position, not to have the ball in their court, and make sure that I’m controlling my end of it and make sure I’m controlling what I can do. Because at the end of the day, missing 15, 16 games can’t happen. At the end of the day, it’s on me, and I have to control that better and make sure I’m out there playing.”
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