The curious case of Tom Wilson continues to hound NHL, critics

The Washington Capitals’ Tom Wilson takes a roughing penalty during the second period against the New York Rangers’ Artemi Panarin at Madison Square Garden.

Bruce Bennett/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

After years spent backing up in the face of criticism over fighting, the NHL performed a radical act on Tuesday – it did nothing.

At issue was the curious case of Tom Wilson. Hockey keeps charting its glorious course into a violence-free future, and Wilson keeps ruining it by playing the caveman.

Wilson, who’s half-forward, half-mobile trauma unit, decided to get into it with New York Ranger Pavel Buchnevich on Monday night. By “get into it,” I mean rabbit-punch Buchnevich in the back of the head while he was face down on the ice.

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Rabbit punches are to Wilson what head-fakes are to Connor McDavid. They’re his thing. This was not some hammer blow brought down from the top rope. It was a garden-variety cheap shot, the sort that happens all the time.

But Wilson draws an enraged crowd wherever he goes – which is the point of employing him. A scrum ensued. The last man into it was Rangers star Artemi Panarin.

Panarin is a little slip of a man, while Wilson looks like two Panarins duct-taped together with another Panarin sitting on their shoulders.

Panarin jumped on Wilson’s back, saloon-brawl-style. Wilson spun him around a few times and flipped Panarin to the ice. He gave him a little forearm shiver, picked him up again and began shaking him out like a dusty rug, before tossing him aside.

Most people enjoy a fair hockey fight, but few like watching a beating. This was somewhere in between those two things. Panarin poked a bear and the bear poked back.

But from the online reaction, you’d think Wilson had pulled a knife on the ice. This effect was magnified when the Capitals’ Twitter feed sent out a meme-heavy graphic in Wilson’s defence.

The NHL’s bad hits and ugly fights have always created a hyperventilating public response. What’s changed is that where people once got breathless with excitement over such things, they now need to breathe into a paper bag in order to contain their moral outrage.

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A New York Post column the next morning was headlined: “NHL must ban agitator for nearly killing Rangers star.”

Nearly killing? If that’s the case, then I nearly died the other morning when I went ass over tea kettle down the stairs in my stockinged feet.

Call me old fashioned, but my bar for “nearly killed” is at least a week in intensive care or something involving two passenger planes coming within 10 feet of each other mid-air.

Nonetheless, people had already begun Zapruder-ing the Panarin footage, identifying the exact moment his helmeted skull might have come into catastrophic contact with the ice.

By this logic, the game of hockey should be banned altogether since players are constantly in danger of hitting their heads on something hard. We could slo-mo every game into 12 hours of fright footage of near misses and miraculous escapes.

The expectation seemed to be that Wilson, a recidivist and a threat and very possibly a man worse than most war criminals, would be suspended for a very long time. Maybe forever.

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A few years ago, in the thick of the hysteria over fighting, the league might have obliged. Put the Capitals on notice by removing their fourth-leading goal scorer on the cusp of the playoffs. Gotten some PR mileage out of statement about having zero tolerance for violence. Conspicuously abandon Wilson and the ancient hockey ethos he represents.

But that tactic did not work. Agreeing that fighting was a scourge had the unanticipated effect of making people believe the league intended to do something definitive about it. Nobody in the NHL – not the players, not the coaches, not the executives, not the owners – wanted that to happen. Nobody.

There was no institutional will underlying the institution’s message. So the NHL has begun to slowly tack the other way.

What was Wilson’s punishment? Nothing.

Okay, he was fined US$5,000, the maximum allowable under the collective bargaining agreement for a roughing penalty. That’s about one twelfth of what Wilson made on Monday night. I don’t think the bank that holds his mortgage needs to worry.

There will be no hearing, no back-and-forth about what happened, and no explanation for why that decision was reached.

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We can work that one out for ourselves. This is about intentions and outcomes. Wilson intended to sucker-punch Buchnevich. Everything that happened after that was chaotic, lacking malice a forethought. Also, the outcome wasn’t awful enough to warrant a tit-for-tat remedy.

Panarin is apparently injured, but the Rangers are three games from the end of their season and out of the playoff hunt. There is no urgency to his return.

Maybe that’s the new rule – where there is no considerable harm, there is no additional foul. That would be wisdom. It’s a moving target, dissuading players from losing control. But it also makes clear that there is a wide latitude to use physical intimidation – an immovable cornerstone of the game – that does not result in serious injury.

More specifically, the NHL is signalling it no longer intends on flipping its wig every time the internet gets angry at Tom Wilson.

And why would it? There are three ways of looking at what he did on Monday night.

If you don’t like Wilson, he demonstrated again why he is a menace.

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If you do, he was gaining his team a psychological advantage (i.e. fear).

The third way is specifically for those who draw their paycheques from the NHL. Wilson turned a pointless Rangers-Capitals rematch on Wednesday into appointment viewing in the league’s largest media market. He put himself top of mind amongst casual hockey fans just before the postseason begins. He is now public enemy No. 1, which did wonders for John Dillinger’s Q rating.

When you think of it that way, why would anyone in the NHL want to discourage Tom Wilson from being Tom Wilson?