Avoiding a Shanaban: Examining Both Sides of the Tom Wilson Hit

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL decided not to suspend Tom Wilson for his hit on Brayden Schenn Tuesday night - a look at why it was the right call... and the wrong one.

Tom Wilson's hit on Brayden Schenn the other night has been the subject of much debate and discussion over the last three days - and likely will continue to be, with Brendan Shanahan and the Department of Player Safety determining earlier tonight that the play did not warrant a suspension. As has been the case with every ruling handed down by Shanahan and friends, it's one that has hockey fans and media alike divided.

There is some validity to both arguments, though, a legitimate case to be made by those advocating suspension and those who agree with the NHL's decision... just another reason why Shanahan has the hardest job in the NHL. So first, let's take a look at what the guy in that unenviable position had to say about the incident:

Was it the right call? The wrong call? Let's look at some of the key points for each side:

Anti-Suspension

We've all become so programmed to see a guy hit the boards awkwardly and immediately assume that there is some kind of sinister motive behind how he got there. In this case, however, it may have looked worse than it ultimately was, at least as far as a suspension-worthy hit goes. No one's saying that the blame for the hit falls squarely on Brayden Schenn in this instance, but players do have to be aware of their surroundings and not put themselves into a vulnerable position. Schenn turns at the last minute, and as fast as Wilson was going, there was no way he was going to be able to stop in time to avoid him. Even with this last-minute position change, Wilson still manages to connect with a shoulder-to-shoulder hit - it's not on the numbers and it's not a headshot - but it does result in Schenn going into the boards in a way he wouldn't have if he hadn't turned.

It's also important not to confuse illegal with dirty - this was an illegal hit by the letter of the law, but there didn't seem to be any underlying malice to it beyond the desire to finish a check. Not all illegal hits are dirty, just as not all dirty hits are illegal (please to be recalling Matt Cooke on Marc Savard, which at the time was a perfectly legal check).

And just as not all illegal hits are dirty, not all illegal hits are worthy of supplemental discipline. In this day and age where the most vicious hits at times seem to either go unpunished or draw lengthy suspensions, that can be hard to understand. Right or not, we've become programmed to expect any sort of violent collision to be met with a suspension (which we will then decide is not long enough). As hard as it is to believe, the refs may have actually gotten this one right - a hit that looked bad in the moment but wasn't as vicious as people would perhaps have you believe in the court of public opinion, aka the internet.

As some have noted, between the extremes of throwing a guy out of the game completely and green-lighting illegality lies moderation - which is usually the right way to go, and that's what Wilson's punishment ended up being. For his troubles Wilson earned himself a five-minute major and a game misconduct, something which not only ended his night but also played a huge role in his team losing the game. Besides, one could argue that putting his team down a man for five minutes was more damaging to the Caps than losing him outright for a game or two anyway.

Pro-Suspension

The League has time and time again claimed to be trying to take dangerous hits out of the game, whether that means hits close to the boards or where a player is in a vulnerable position or where the head is targeted. If that's the case, if they really are trying to make the hits safer and in turn keep players accountable for their actions, this is the kind of hit they should be trying to eliminate. Two of those three criteria would come into play here, because regardless of where Wilson decided to make the hit and regardless of the position in which Schenn is hit, it was a reckless play just a few feet away from the boards that probably wasn't going to end well.

Despite Adam Oates's and George McPhee's assertions to the contrary, the penalty was well-deserved on the play (which is underlined by the fact that the League upheld the game misconduct issued to Wilson on Tuesday). It's not a "clean" play - if we use that word interchangeably with "legal", as most people tend to do - based on the precise wording of the rulebook:

42. A minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner.

Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner. A "charge" may be the result of a check into the boards, into the goal frame or in open ice.

The game misconduct element is also spelled out pretty clearly:

42.5 Game Misconduct Penalty - When a major penalty is imposed under this rule for a foul resulting in an injury to the face or head of an opponent, a game misconduct shall be imposed.

Hard to argue that this didn't fall into both of those categories. After that, it becomes up to the League whether it was violent enough or dangerous enough to warrant further discipline - and in this case it probably could have been, given the number of strides Wilson took before actually making contact, the speed with which he took them, and the vulnerable position Schenn was in by the time the two collided. It’s a pretty vicious hit, one that leads us to ask, is the point of hitting in hockey to separate the opponent from the puck, or to cause the most damage possible? If it’s the former, as we assume it is, this one crosses a line from what is "acceptable" in a physical game and what should be unacceptable.

There's also a missed opportunity here, a chance to set a precedent both for other players and with Wilson. By not suspending him, it could send the message that building up a head of steam before charging an opponent is, if not okay, merely worth a slap on the wrist and an early trip to the showers - that dangerous hits are to some extent okay, especially provided the victim isn't stretchered off the ice. And for Wilson, it removes the possibility that he can be seen as a repeat offender if he should do it again (although it's worth noting that the "repeat offender" title is merely a CBA measure as to how much salary a player forfeits should he be suspended).

*****

Opinions certainly vary on this one, and it's reasonable to fall on either end of the spectrum, or even somewhere in between - that the League felt the need to have a hearing in the first place and get Wilson’s side of the story shows that it’s not black-and-white even to the most experienced eyes.

Ultimately, though, the hope is that his brush with the Shanaban put a bit of fear into the 19-year-old, reminding him that playing with an edge means knowing when not to step over it. For better or for worse, he's now on the League's radar and needs to be careful not to let his physicality create a reputation for him - especially not before his actual talent can.

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