The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tom Wilson’s long-shot Olympics hopes were dashed. But his NHL career continues to impress.

Tom Wilson got some Olympics buzz ahead of Beijing, but the NHL pulled out of the 2022 Winter Games last month. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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As a kid growing up in Canada, Tom Wilson had two dreams. One was to win the Stanley Cup, and the other was to win a gold medal. The Washington Capitals winger has already achieved the former; it’s the latter that remains elusive.

Wilson, 27, was in the conversation for Team Canada before the 2022 Winter Olympics, though he was considered a long shot for Beijing. But that hope was dashed last month, when the NHL backed out of the Games amid the coronavirus surge.

Wilson didn’t think his name would be in the mix to make Team Canada so early in his NHL career. However, when the idea became a brief possibility — then was abruptly taken away — Wilson was left with disappointment.

“It sucks that in this moment and in this time there wasn’t an opportunity to kind of see the process through,” said Wilson, a Toronto native. “But my focus has been with the Capitals, and it will remain with the Capitals. In a couple years time, if the conversation is still going, I will do my best to play at my highest level and be there [next time].”

Merely being mentioned in the Olympics conversation signaled the growth of Wilson’s game. He has made steady improvements since breaking into the league as a 19-year-old and has nine goals and 15 assists in his ninth season in Washington.

“Every team would like to have a Tom Wilson on it,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said. “Someone who is big and strong and cares about his teammates and competes for his teammates and plays in all areas of the game.”

Tom Wilson takes on mentorship role with Capitals’ young players

Wilson played in his 600th NHL game this past week, becoming the fifth-youngest player in franchise history to achieve that mark. He has blossomed from a fourth-line player — a spark who provided energy — into a dependable top forward who is still growing his game.

“It’s been an evolution from that day until now,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “He’s a top-six forward, good two-way guy. Still provides a physical presence, a lot more discipline in his game, knows when to be physical, when not to be physical. Just an overall maturity of game and continually gotten better as he’s gotten older.”

The Caps may tout Wilson’s growing maturity, but his controversial past is littered with questionable hits. His reputation around the league largely stems from his five suspensions and a handful of fines in his NHL career. Wilson and the Capitals have long worked to change that image. Wilson has tried to adjust his game, getting better at knowing what moments to pull back and when to lean in.

“Sometimes guys that play certain roles, they get so focused on, ‘Oh, I got to go out and fight,’ ” Wilson said. “I can’t do that. I’m expected to go out and score and make plays as well. I have to be able to flip that switch very quickly if need be, and I’ve just sort of learned how to do it through trial and error.”

MacLellan said he’s happy with the on-ice balance Wilson has struck physically, but he believes there is still room for Wilson to improve his offensive game.

“What we’ve seen from Tom is exactly what we are looking for from all aspects, from inside the locker room to how he plays the game,” Laviolette said. “The physicality, the offense, the penalty kill, he’s relied upon in all aspects.”

Wilson had previous ties with Hockey Canada, competing in under-17 and under-18 tournaments. He also participated in tryouts for Canada’s world junior championship team in 2012 but was cut.

“Playing for Hockey Canada at such a young age and being in that program was so good for my career because they demand the utmost excellence possible,” Wilson said. “There’s no room for error. … You learn what it takes to be a pro.”

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Joel Ward, Wilson’s former teammate, saw his potential early. Ward — who retired in 2020 after 11 seasons in the NHL, including four in Washington — remembers Wilson as likable right off the bat, a “big kid in gym class who is just bigger than everyone” and was willing to learn.

Ward tried to show him the ropes and often tried to get Wilson to be more like “Shaquille O’Neal in the paint,” controlling his body like the former NBA great despite his size and strength.

“To me he will always be young Willy. … He is a big, young, goofy kid,” Ward said. “I’m just happy for him, happy to see him succeed.”

Ward, also a Toronto native, said he threw Wilson’s name into recent conversations about the Olympics with Hockey Canada personnel. Wilson also had a lot of support from his current teammates.

“Of course he deserved to be there,” Alex Ovechkin said of Wilson’s Olympic hopes. “He is a great teammate, good player and why not?”

“It would have been fun to see what would have happened,” Wilson said.

Wilson did not get the chance to see the Olympic process through this year but said he was honored just to be mentioned with some of the top players in the game.

He has vivid memories of watching the Olympics growing up, particularly when he was about 10 years old. He was playing in a youth hockey tournament at the same time of the gold medal game. At the rink, his team could see televisions above a bar. Even as they were out on the ice, players were trying to sneak peeks.

“Time kind of stands still when there is a big Team Canada game,” he said.