“It can be a bright spot in their month — or their year,” Wilson said.
So as Wilson showered up, the Kaufmans fidgeted. What to ask an NHL star?
“I want to ask him if he’s married,” 11-year-old Gabriella said.
“He’s not married,” her mom, Jamie, shot back immediately.
“How many fights did he have?” Gabriella’s 10-year-old brother, Gage, asked.
“I don’t know if he keeps track,” Jamie said.
And then here came Wilson, 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds of apologies.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “And sorry we lost.”
“Sorry you didn’t fight,” Gage said.
“Yeah,” Wilson said, and looked down. “I thought about it.”
Tom Wilson has movie-star looks, a $31 million contract, a Stanley Cup ring and a charity to support families who need it, and he is in an impossible spot. Each night, he laces up his skates and plays on the same line as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom — perhaps the two best players in Capitals history — because he is skilled enough to warrant that job. Each night he skates that 220-pound frame at speeds more regularly reached by much smaller men, and he evaluates in real time whether he should power into an opposing player or pull back.
The choices are stark. Hit, and he’ll almost certainly be questioned. Pull back, and he’ll question himself.
“You have a reputation,” he said. “You have to deal with it.”
Wilson deals with it every day. There was a time when players who dish out hits the way Wilson can were valued in the NHL rather than vilified. That time is not the dawn of 2020. Since he entered the league as a 19-year-old rookie in 2013, no player has accumulated more penalty minutes; indeed, no one is within 100 of him. He has been suspended four times, including once in the playoffs and once for a hit in the preseason that cost him the first 14 games after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. In a social media era, he regularly has to turn away from Twitter, where he finds the following — and worse.
“Tom Wilson is a headhunting goon who has no place in this league.”
“Letting Tom Wilson stay in the Nhl is a [expletive] joke.”
“Tom Wilson is such a piece of human [expletive] garbage. What a buffoon.”
Those are tweets from one night in the life of Tom Wilson.
And yet in his own dressing room, he is embraced, even at 25, as a leader and a foundational piece for what eventually will be a post-Ovechkin era.
“His type of player was the type of player a young Canadian kid grew up idolizing,” goalie Braden Holtby said.
“He’s very intelligent,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said.
“If somebody told me Tom Wilson would be the next captain there, I would have zero arguments against it,” retired defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
“You get to know him, and you learn about the character — it’s off the charts,” Coach Todd Reirden said.
Read all that, and fans in Washington nod their head, because it affirms what they already know. Read all that, and fans in other markets roll their eyes, smirk or worse.
Wilson is caught not only between those two hockey groups but between an era in which he would have been celebrated and one that labels him dirty. As Holtby said, “He would have had success in any decade,” the brawling 1970s or the wide-open 1980s or the hard-checking 1990s all included.
But he is about to play in the 2020s, when the NHL will continue to employ an active and aggressive Department of Player Safety. It is a group Wilson knows all too well. It is a group that has asked — has demanded — Wilson change the way he plays. He has the size and the strength and the speed to inflict damage nightly. The NHL would rather he pull up and back off.
So as he hits the prime of his career and becomes a fixture on the Capitals’ top line, there is an evolution taking place.
“Who is the new Tom Wilson?” Reirden asked. “And what’s it going to look like?”
Finding his spot
Tom Wilson grew up a white-collar kid in Toronto. His father, Keven, was a banker. He and his two brothers played hockey on a sheet of ice Keven maintained in a ravine at the base of their backyard. Old doors, some still with the knobs on them, served as the boards. And young Tom wore it out.
“My birthday is March 29, and I’d want to have my birthday party on that rink,” Wilson said. “It’d just be slush. We got so much use out of that rink.”
In those early years, Wilson wasn’t always bigger and stronger than his peers. A growth spurt in his early teens shot him over 6 feet. It didn’t make him more athletic. It made him more awkward.
“You’re like Bambi,” Wilson said. “You have to learn how to skate again at 14 or 15.”
The Greater Toronto Hockey League annually stages an all-star game to showcase its best players for the Ontario Hockey League, one of the three major junior circuits in Canada. The stands are loaded with scouts.
“You’re doing whatever you can to get noticed,” Wilson said.
When Wilson got the opportunity to play in the showcase, he picked an opponent — a kid named Scott Laughton, who is now with the Philadelphia Flyers — and he fought him. He got noticed. He was drafted by the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers. As a 16-year-old, he had to stay in the lineup before he could work his way up it. And so one night against the Barrie Colts, he fought again.
“It just kind of happened,” Wilson said this month over coffee near the Capitals’ Arlington practice facility. “I won the fight. And you’re like: ‘All right. It’s not so bad.’ And you see what it does to the team. It brings guys together. You protect your teammates, stand up for guys. You find a bit of a role doing that where you can change momentum in a game when you’re only playing seven or eight minutes.”
As he grew, though, his role changed. He was physical enough that he was named the OHL’s “best body checker.” By his NHL draft year, he was also on the power play, playing more minutes, creating more offensively. In 13 playoff games, he produced 13 points. He stood that full 6-foot-4, but man he could skate, too.
“A bit of a rare package,” said Ross Mahoney, the Capitals’ assistant general manager who for 16 years served as the team’s director of amateur scouting.
In 2012, the Caps held the 16th selection in the first round. In weighing their options, they brought Wilson in for a second interview. MacLellan, then an assistant general manager, sat in.
“You’re just impressed with the maturity for someone that age,” MacLellan said. “The way he carried himself. He was team-oriented and was sincere in the language and the way he presented himself. That interview was impressive.”
But to take a player that high, he had to be more than well-spoken. He had to, frankly, be more than a physical presence.
“When you’re taking someone at 16,” Mahoney said, “you are projecting he’ll be a top-six forward. The size, the skating, the skill — we thought he could be that.”
And yet early in his NHL career, circumstance pigeonholed Wilson. NHL rules dictated that in 2012-13, he couldn’t play in the American Hockey League, the top minor league circuit. The choices: Play in the NHL, which might be too much, or go back to the OHL, which — after a season in which he produced 58 points in 48 games — he had outgrown. Adam Oates, then the Capitals’ coach, pushed to keep Wilson with the big club. So, at 19, here he was, an NHL rookie.
“He was in one of those situations where you see a lot of kids’ careers get ruined by being up at a young age and not playing,” Holtby said, “or being put into a role that might not lead to growing a lot.”
The role: Play on the fourth line. Buzz around. Hit people. Fight. In less than eight minutes a night, have an impact.
“If you’re playing against another team’s top players, make it tough for them,” Wilson said. “When those guys come over the boards, they know it’s going to be a tough shift.”
As he moved into his third NHL season, his role was expanding just as the league was changing. Sidney Crosby, arguably the sport’s biggest star, had missed time with concussions.
Player safety moved to the forefront of the discussion. Speed became important. Hitting became a problem.
“I wanted to grow,” Wilson said. “I wanted to learn. I wanted to adapt. And, you know, the hits that I’ve made, they’re body checks. They’re hard hockey plays.
“But I think — I hope — there’s a respect. I know a lot of guys around the game and played with a lot of guys, you hope there’s a mutual respect where you’re out there trying to play the game hard and honest. You see a lot of histrionics entering the game now like slashing and butt-ending and spraying — and licking guys. That’s never been my style.”
A matter of perception
This month, late in a game the Capitals trailed at Columbus, Wilson skated into the offensive end, where Blue Jackets defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov was about to battle Caps forward T.J. Oshie for the puck. Wilson arrived as Gavrikov played the puck along the boards. He collided with Gavrikov. Wilson skated away. Gavrikov went down. And the analysis began.
“I don’t get it at the end,” Columbus Coach John Tortorella said afterward. “He’s three or four feet off the ground. . . . I thought it was a needless hit.”
So off we go. The tweets mentioned earlier in this story, they’re all from the moments after Wilson’s hit on Gavrikov. Wilson, by now, is beyond publicly breaking down his own hits even as he knows they’ll be dissected frame by frame.
“For me over the years it’s just been better to go out and play my game and not necessarily talk about it,” he said. “It seems like nowadays anyone can turn anything into anything they want just by talking about it.”
The Capitals vehemently defend Wilson and his style. He has, they know, examined his game and how it relates to the way the league is trending. They know he met with the Department of Player Safety to better understand the line he is walking. They know the time he has spent in front of video monitors, looking at his own hits — none more so than the mid-ice check of St. Louis center Oskar Sundqvist, the preseason blow for which the NHL originally suspended him 20 games, a penalty later reduced to 14.
“I studied that hit for days on days on days,” Wilson said.
That suspension followed the three-game ban Wilson served during the Caps’ run to the Cup for a hit that broke the jaw of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese. In issuing the verdict for the hit on Sundqvist, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wrote, as part of a 31-page explanation, “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.”
To the Capitals, though, there needs to be some reevaluation of how Wilson is being evaluated.
“He shies away from a lot of hits just in case something was to go wrong,” Oshie said.
“We know he’s not a dirty player,” Holtby said. “To see a guy penalized and kind of blacklisted by the league more than anyone, it’s extremely frustrating.”
During the process that eventually led to the reduction of Wilson’s suspension, MacLellan traveled with his player to and from New York for meetings with the league. What he found wasn’t a thug who simply felt he had been wronged.
“He feels like he’s letting the team down, letting the organization down,” MacLellan said. “He’s apologizing. . . . It’s a mature attitude.”
Even with the modifications Wilson has made to make his hits effective and safe, eyes still turn his way. There are simple physics at work here. Most 220-pound players can’t skate as fast as Wilson can. Most smaller players are fast enough that they avoid such hits. But Wilson’s combination of size and speed puts him in position for more hits that have an impact.
“There’s been times where he’ll get frustrated with hits and people complaining,” said Orpik, a teammate for five years and someone who knows about physical play and being suspended for it. “And he says, ‘Hey, I let up on him.’ And I’d say: ‘Tom, I know you let up on him. But when you let up on him, you still blow people up.’ ”
A presence felt
A few weeks ago, Wilson walked out of the elevator and across a floor onto the streets of Arlington, then knocked on the glass of the business next door. Bash Boxing opened a few months ago in the building that houses the Capitals’ headquarters, and Wilson bought in as an investor. The scrutiny Wilson faces on the ice and with his words, it’s gone when he glides through the door and the women who run the place welcome him. In Northern Virginia, where he bought a house, and Washington, where his girlfriend has enrolled in graduate school at George Washington, he is at ease.
“This is almost home,” Wilson said. “I love it here.”
The six-year deal he signed following the Stanley Cup victory in 2018 means he is in line to be here at least through 2023-24. But this feels like a permanent marriage because of how valuable Wilson has become to the Caps. Some of that value comes from his post-Sundqvist adjustments.
Through the NHL’s holiday break, Wilson has reached a career high with 0.68 points per game just as he is at a career low with 1.61 penalty minutes per game. He has five major penalties, all for fighting, most on occasions in which the other player dropped the gloves first. No player in the top 10 in hits — Wilson ranks fifth — has more than Wilson’s 26 points.
“He had to harness some of that physical element that is a difference-maker for him, but to understand that he had become too important to our team,” Reirden said. “I had to tell him: Our team cannot afford to not have you on the ice.”
Even if Wilson is processing potential hits more cautiously, he has a presence that impacts games. Orpik, who now works in the Caps’ player development department, was watching that game at Columbus on television. He saw a handful of dump-ins to the Columbus zone in which a Blue Jackets defenseman had four or five steps on Wilson.
“I was laughing, because they took some interesting routes to the puck,” Orpik said. “All of a sudden, Tom got the puck first because they were more interested in avoiding contact. He does that, he’s playing with Nicky and Ovi, and all of a sudden he kicks a puck out to them and they get chances because of it.”
Those kinds of plays have Wilson on pace for a career-high 26 goals and a career-high 56 points. That’s the package the Caps paid $31 million for, and yet Wilson always will be known for physicality first. As he moved through the halls at Capital One Arena late one night, Wilson walked past Joe Beninati, the Capitals’ venerable play-by-play announcer. “Don’t beat me up,” Beninati said playfully. Wilson smiled. You have a reputation, you have to deal with it, even among friends.
“There’s this persona of Tom Wilson from people that don’t know him, especially people outside of Washington and the Washington organization,” Orpik said. “The people that know him, like my family members and other people’s family members, they will tell you that he’s the nicest, most respectful kid, how good he is with their kids, in a really genuine way. There’s nothing phony about it. That’s really who he is.”
When the Kaufman family had spent their time in the dressing room, sat in Ovechkin’s stall, taken all the pictures in all the permutations that they wanted with Wilson, they walked to the elevator, beaming one and all. Travis Kaufman is a captain in the U.S. Army. He has seen combat in Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, and provided humanitarian support in Guatemala. He has been away from his family — a lot.
“These meetings, they have an effect on both parties,” Wilson said. “It can be very sad to see what some of these people are going through, and some of the kids are mature beyond their years because they’re going through such tough stuff.”
The tough stuff is what hockey fans don’t see when Tom Wilson skates, whether he checks or he turns away, whether he fights or skates off. He has a reputation. He has to deal with it, even as he wants it to change.