And just like that, hockey became relevant, if not for a fleeting second. Yeah, thanks Tom Wilson.
By now, everyone knows of the epic fail the NHL Player Safety group this week in handing out a measly $5,000 fine to Capitals’ tough man Tom Wilson, a player known to league safety officials for sure. Fans, media, hockey pundits, even an entire organization, were calling for heads to roll.
But, which heads?
Wilson had to face the music the very next night when in the second game of a back-to-back series against the New York Rangers, all hell broke loose. From the moment the puck dropped, the gloves were off and the two teams spent the better part of the first period knocking the teeth out of each other. Within the first four minutes, there had already been like 60 penalty minutes.
The lasting image of the night was a shot of the Capitals packed into the penalty box, five strong.
Hockey will likely never win many popularity contests among North American sports fans, as the NFL, MLB and NBA are complete juggernauts in the sports industry. The NHL, for years mentioned as an afterthought in most U.S. markets, has expanded and grown its game and its fan base. That is good, as it attracts revenue and sponsors and media and all of that big-money stuff.
The bad? Well, every average joe fancies himself a hockey expert now.
The Wilson incident is a perfect example. He literally did a WWE body slam a la Jake The Snake Roberts on Rangers’ star Artemi Panarin who has had the weirdest season ever with political intrigue with Vladimir Putin’s goons, sexual assault charges and injuries. The Rangers pay the Russian superstar $13 million a year to lead them, which he does with 58 points this season (17 goals, 41 assists) while playing 19:39 per game.
Until Wilson asserted his authority. The hit took the BreadMan out for the season, and New Yorkers aren’t especially sensitive to opposing players knocking out their star of the now and of the future.
Cries went out immediately. “Get him out of hockey.” “He’s going to hurt somebody.” “Wilson is a repeat offender.” All being the equivalent of “throw the book at him and toss away the key.”
The Rangers were livid and took aim at George Parros, who before now hardly anybody knew who the hell he was. Now, he’s become Public Enemy No. 1 in the hockey world. For it is Parros, not Wilson, who seems to be feeling much of the heat the incident generated.
“Wilson turned around and didn’t really know who it was because Panarin jumped on his f*cking back,” one league executive was quoted anonymously in a story about the incident in The Athletic. “Like he should have stayed out of it or just sort of grabbed him. Tom Wilson would not have done that to Panarin, I think, if he didn’t jump on his back and there was a whole shitstorm going on. And I’m the last person to defend this guy. I really am,” the executive said.
“To be honest I’m watching it now as we’re talking and I’ll tell you what, it could have been a lot worse. He didn’t even drop his gloves. Yeah, you get caught up in that. Yeah, he f*cking threw him down. His helmet came off. Panarin should not have jumped on his f*cking back,” the Athletic reported the executive as saying.
“If you don’t want to get involved in that stuff, that’s your decision. But don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Don’t go at Tom Wilson and expect him to treat you with kid gloves because of who you are. He’s not going to, so don’t go in there.” (from “ ‘He’s going to hurt someone and the league knows it’: Hockey experts weigh in on the Tom Wilson incident,” The Athletic, 5/4/2021).
In a statement blasted out over social media, the team stated, “The New York Rangers are extremely disappointed that Capitals forward Tom Wilson was not suspended for his horrifying act of violence … Wilson is a repeat offender and has a long history of these type of acts and we find it shocking that the NHL and their Department of Player Safety failed to take the appropriate action …”
Fans, players, teams, media applauded the Rangers for their bold statement. The NHL was less than amused. The day after the media blitz about the Wilson incident, team president John Davidson and general manager
Like everyone else, I was horrified, but not completely shocked by watching the Wilson-Panarin incident. Hockey is a violent game and scrums like the one Wilson found himself in are pretty common in the NHL. The body slam pushed the envelope.
But for all of those who are calling for heads on a platter, as we discussed earlier, well, you’re not going to like this. The league is handcuffed by the rules set forth in the collective bargaining agreement struck between the NHL and the NHL Players’ union. Fines and punishments are set and agreed upon before the season. Rarely, if ever, will the league make a sweeping change to its rules in-season.
So, you are asking the Capitals to divorce themselves from a 13-goal scorer who has added 20 assists for 33 points, fifth on the Capitals behind stars Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Alex Ovechkin, and TJ Oshie. He also plays a dependable 16:41 each game. Drafted by Washington at age 19 in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Wilson has logged 566 games, scoring 91 goals with 130 assists for 221 points. He has amassed 1,111 penalty minutes in his career.
You can’t change the rules arbitrarily and make up new ones to fit a particular situation. No during the season. So, sucks as it may be, the Tom Wilson incident – while shocking – was good for the NHL. New fans tuned into see how the Rangers would exact their revenge.
But, they didn’t really. The Capitals controlled the game as Oshie was the star, scoring three en route to a 4-2 win.
As for the Rangers, this is far from over – this war with Bettman.
“Public comments of the nature issued by the Rangers that were personal in nature and demeaning of a League executive will not be tolerated,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “While we don’t expect our Clubs to agree with every decision rendered by the Department of Player Safety, the extent to which the Rangers expressed their disagreement was unacceptable. It is terribly unfair to question George Parros’ professionalism and dedication to his role and the Department of Player Safety.”
So, who is there to hate. Parros is an easy target because as suit in league HQ, he needs to be accountable. Gary Bettman, by fining the Rangers for releasing the statement about Parros, is an easy villain here too. Wilson, of course, may never shake the goon reputation. Panarin won’t play hockey again this season.
An incident that left a black eye on the NHL, was actually a ratings bonanza.
Thanks for reading!
Rob Staggenborg writes hockey for the SportBumz.com, The Hockey Writers, the Blue Note Fan Report and is the founder of RinkSide Media, producing the Rinkside Report. Follow him @RealBrockBanne1