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Why the NHL Upheld Tom Wilson’s 20-Game Suspension

Digging into the decision handed down by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman Thursday afternoon

NHL: Preseason-St. Louis Blues at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Almost a month ago, in the Washington Capitals’ final preseason game, Tom Wilson delivered a crushing hit on St. Louis Blue forward Oskar Sundqvist, who was injured on the play. Wilson was ejected from the game by the referees, receiving a match penalty for an illegal check to the head.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety dropped the hammer on Wilson, who has a long history of run-ins with the DPS and is considered a “repeat offender.” The NHL Players Association appealed the suspension on Wilson’s behalf, arguing that he should only miss eight games.

Now the wait is over. And it’s bad news for the Capitals’ 24-year-old part-time wrecking ball.

Commissioner Gary Bettman upheld the full-length Wilson’s suspension in a 31-page ruling issued by the league Thursday afternoon. Wilson will forfeit $1,260,162.60 in salary.

Bettman concluded that Wilson delivered an illegal check to the head, a violation of rule 48.1, finding that Sundqvist’s head was the “main point of contact” and “the head contact was avoidable.”

Perhaps most importantly, the NHL noted that “this is Mr. Wilson’s fourth suspension in barely more than a year” [emphasis theirs].

Last season, Wilson was suspended for a late check during the preseason, then he was suspended again, this time for four games, just two games after returning from his first suspension. He was later suspended for three playoff games in May after a check to the head that left the Pittsburgh Penguins player Zach Aston-Reese with a broken jaw.

That play caused DPS senior vice president George Parros, who doled out Wilson’s current suspension, to call Wilson during the Stanley Cup Final to discuss the Aston-Reese hit, and other questionable hits in playoffs. Earlier in the year, Parros met personally with Wilson on two separate occasions to discuss how to avoid more suspensions.

Sundqvist has been on injured reserve since the hit. The 24-year-old will return to the Blues’ lineup Thursday night for the first time since suffering a myriad of injuries on the play.

“I hope [Wilson] has learned his lesson,” Sundqvist said in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier in the week, before the league’s decision came down. “I mean, this is not the first time I think they want to show him that this isn’t okay anymore.”

According to the NHL, Sundqvist suffered a concussion, facial lacerations and a right shoulder A/C sprain, which occurred when Sundqvist hit the ice after Wilson’s check.

Replays show Wilson backchecking and then skating to the middle of the ice to line-up a hit on Sundqvist, who released a shot just before the contact with Wilson.

“I have closely reviewed the video footage of the incident,” Bettman wrote. “Almost immediately upon Mr. Sundqvist releasing the puck, Mr. Wilson delivered a forceful check to Mr. Sundqvist that made significant contact with Mr. Sundqvist’s head.”

Bettman argued that although Sundqvist moved to release his shot, there “was no meaningful movement of Mr. Sundqvist’s head” in the time between Wilson committing to the check and to the time he made contact with Sundqvist.

Wilson had two in-person hearings about the hit with the league at their New York headquarters. The first was on October 3 with Parros. He gave Wilson the original 20 game suspension. The NHLPA appealed, which kicked the case up to Bettman, who brought the parties together for an October 18 hearing that lasted over seven hours.

The NHLPA argued that Sundqvist’s head should not be considered “the main point of contact” because it did not snap independently of the rest of Sundqvist’s body. Instead, in the NHLPA’s view, Wilson simply delivered a legal body check. The Players Association put part of the blame on Sundqvist for putting “himself in a vulnerable position by assuming a posture that made contact on an otherwise full body check unavoidable.”

The NHLPA made a secondary argument that even if Wilson delivered an illegal check to the head, the 20 game penalty doled out was “unprecedented.”

Wilson’s representatives also offered a dubious argument that he should not be considered a three-time repeat offender because his last two suspensions, both of which came last season, the latter in the playoffs were “highly debated.” Furthermore, they said Wilson is generally regarded as a “clean player.”

Regardless of what you think of this suspension, those arguments fly in the face of reality.

“The supplementary discipline assessed to Mr. Wilson prior to this incident has clearly been ineffective in getting his dangerously reckless play,” Bettman concluded. “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.”