But as Wilson spent the first 16 games of the season suspended by the NHL Department of Player Safety for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist, the Washington Capitals forward had a lot of time to kill. Maybe he was just curious or maybe a little masochistic, but Wilson wanted to read through the different labels to which his name was attached.
“I read a lot of it,” he said. “And it’s interesting. I like to be as educated as I can. A lot of people say a lot of bad things about you, so at the end of the day, I want to know what they’re saying.”
The many opinions on Wilson range from one extreme to the other, that he tries to injure his opponents and is black eye on the league, or that he’s a victim of the NHL’s inconsistent justice system. The ones Wilson cares about most are those of his teammates, who don’t see a headhunter but instead a well-rounded player who helps them win. Following his fourth suspension since the 2017 preseason, there’s a part of Wilson that’s accepted his reputation and another that hopes people will be saying something else one day.
There’s a difference between wanting to be the villain and being portrayed as the villain so much that you eventually start to embrace it. Wilson said he enjoys hearing opposing fans boo him as much as he relishes being cheered in Washington, but, “I’d be lying if I say you don’t see it or you don’t feel it.
"You never truly want to be hated.”
Suspensions and scorn
Wilson was polarizing even as a kid, when he played in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and towered over his competition as he does now at his current size of 6 feet 4 and 218 pounds. He was already so talented that he probably should have been playing a level up, and he remembers other parents chirping his mother and another player’s father threatening to fight Wilson’s in the stands.
His on-ice controversy spilled over to his family this past postseason, too. Wilson deleted the Twitter app on his phone during the playoffs, but he was still using Instagram, and after he was suspended for an illegal check to the head of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese, he saw someone post his family’s Toronto address there.
“At the end of the day, if people want to target me, that’s fine, but you always have a soft spot for your family,” Wilson said. “I just texted my parents, like, ‘Just so you know, beware what’s in the mail.’”
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He’s earned the ire of opponents as well. “You also understand there are instances where guys get hit and it’s part of the game. It happens fast, and it’s intense out there,” Penguins star Sidney Crosby said when asked this year about Wilson’s hit on Sundqvist. “When a guy does it a handful of times, you start to question what the intent is.”
Wilson doesn’t expect sympathy, and he’s remained so defiant that he won’t get any. Even as he admits he must change how he hits, he says it’s because the league has changed, becoming more about skill and speed than physicality. That’s true — the modern NHL is very different from the one he grew up watching or even the one he first played in as a rookie in 2013 — but it’s also not an admission that he was doing anything wrong before.
Of his four suspensions, he still vehemently disagrees with two of them: his first suspension, for interference on St. Louis’s Robert Thomas in a preseason game, and “the third one, I think you know my stance on, along with a lot of the rest of the hockey world,” he said. That was the illegal check to the head of Aston-Reese that cost Wilson three playoff games. In NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s 31-page report from Wilson’s first appeal hearing last month, he noted there was heavy debate as to whether the hit on Aston-Reese warranted a suspension.
Wilson takes offense to being labeled a “headhunter” because of the 1,000-plus hits he’s delivered in his career, he was suspended for a head shot twice, both coming in the past six months. “In both of them, my shoulder is completely down. I’m not targeting a head,” he said, adding that many will grouse at that logic. Both Aston-Reese and Sundqvist sustained concussions from the hits.
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At the suggestion that what some might want to hear from him is remorse, he said, “I don’t think I need to tell the media the remorse I’ve had.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve had that. Right after I made that hit [on Sundqvist], you can see my face on the Jumbotron. I wasn’t expecting that outcome. I don’t know what people want me to say. No one knows how I felt, and if I say I felt bad, then people are just going to say, ‘Oh, you felt bad? Look at him, he’s hurt.’ So, my family knows how I felt, my close friends know how I felt, and no one else really needs to know. But all that I’d have people know is that I have a ton of respect for the players that I play against, and I have a ton of respect for the players I play with. And when anyone gets hurt on the ice, you always hope that they’re okay.”
Whenever he replays his Sept. 30 hit on Sundqvist, he often imagines he just slipped and fell in the neutral zone and was never in the position to deliver it. But how he purposefully tracked back up the ice to deliver the open-ice blow now exemplifies everything he has to abandon going forward.
“He understands that if you live by the sword,” said Keven Wilson, Tom’s father, “sometimes you get cut by it.”
Check Wilson’s Twitter mentions now, and they’re full of proud Capitals fans and fire emoji for the hot streak he’s been on since he returned to the lineup — six goals with six assists in his first eight games after the suspension. Still, after he scored a goal in his home debut last week, his interactions on social media were split between those who praise him and those who decry his place in the league.
“I didn’t even make a body check,” he said with a shrug.
Imagine playing a certain way for 20 years, getting drafted for that style, receiving a six-year, $31 million contract because of it and then being told the style needs to change. “It’s hard for him to tone it down consistently,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. Between the initial hearing with the Department of Player Safety and the two subsequent appeal hearings, one of which lasted seven hours, MacLellan chuckled that both he and Wilson got a thorough education in how hits are being evaluated.
The conclusion: He’s fine forechecking and knows to avoid hits when a player’s back is turned toward him, but it’s “those impact hits through the middle of the ice when he’s tracking back,” like the one on Sundqvist, that have to go, MacLellan said.
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“There’s quite a few times when you have a guy lined up or in a vulnerable spot,” said Florida Panthers forward Troy Brouwer, a former teammate of Wilson with the Capitals. “And, yeah, you could probably bury the guy, but maybe slow it down a little bit, give him a bump and let him know you’re there. Sometimes that still has the same effect as lighting some guy up, too.”
MacLellan will back his player, but as the organization still had to pay his salary — the bulk of which goes to the NHL Players’ Emergency Assistance fund this year — and carry his $5.1 million cap hit while he missed the first 16 games, there’s a balance between support and enabling.
“It’s important that we talk about how important he is to our team,” he said. “You don’t have to have a big hit all the time. He needs to be in our lineup, and he needs to have a big role, and he needs to realize how important he is to our team and to our organization.”
That much has been evident. The Capitals were middling while Wilson was suspended, and though MacLellan didn’t notice other teams try to take advantage of his star players with Wilson not around to defend them, he did see his own team play more passively. Washington is 7-1-0 since Wilson made his season debut two weeks ago, and top center Evgeny Kuznetsov and right wing T.J. Oshie both were out with concussions for six of those games.
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Working with a skills coach during the six weeks he was sidelined helped Wilson’s puck-handling improve, and while his hard hitting has been at the forefront of his career, the Capitals always saw offensive potential when they drafted him in the first round in 2012. Captain Alex Ovechkin recently said he’s playing “like Eric Lindros,” the Hall of Famer. Currently on the top power play and penalty kill, Wilson is averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game. Even if he could play as physically as he used to, it would be a poor use of his energy in his current role.
At least once a game, he’s had to stop himself, a mental slap to reject his instinct for a big hit. He knows the scorn and scrutiny that will follow, and Wilson has grown tired of giving his haters something to talk about.