Editorial: The NHL is morally responsible for Tom Wilson

The Department of Player Safety does not care about player safety, and that’s a problem.

For one brief, shining moment starting in 2011, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety—under Brendan Shanahan’s guidance—actually cared about player safety.

If Shanahan had been allowed to continue his plan of seriously penalizing players for dangerous acts, those acts would have been phased out of the game; there are players over the last decade whose careers have been shortened or ended, or whose retirement life will be full of unnecessary pain and distress, because of a play that Shanahan didn’t want their opponents to be making.

However, Shanahan’s safety-first priorities conflicted with the league’s interests at times, and after his departure suspensions slowed, possibly because of team pushback. The Department of Player Safety is currently headed by George Parros, an ex-enforcer who currently co-owns a clothing brand called Violent Gentlemen.

And so we turn to Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson. His latest: he punched a defenseless Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head before slamming a helmetless Artemi Panarin headfirst toward the ice in last night’s game against the New York Rangers. Fortunately, Panarin’s shoulder, instead of his skull, broke the fall.

Wilson has been doing this for years. Not only that, he’s been spouting the same platitudes every time for seven years, announcing that he needs to stay cool and play smarter. Well, Tom, it’s been seven years; have you figured it out yet?

The Department of Player Safety’s latest: they fined Wilson for roughing Buchnevich, with no supplemental discipline levied for the attack on Panarin. The maximum fine allowed under the CBA is pocket change to anyone making NHL money, and cannot be considered a disincentive to any NHL regular.

The NHL rulebook includes a penalty, “Aggressor,” that can be called against any player who fights or continues to fight an unwilling or defenseless opponent; it comes with a major penalty and a game misconduct (kicked out of the game). Three aggressor penalties in one regular season, or two in one postseason—unless it’s the Stanley Cup Final—come with an automatic suspension, the length of which increases with every ensuing aggressor penalty. It might have been reasonable to call that for the “roughing” against Buchnevich, who was both defenseless and unwilling, and who got solidly sucker-punched (also against the NHL rules).

The attack on Panarin could have ended his career, or maybe even killed him, if he’d hit the ice headfirst. Helmets did not become mandatory until several years after Minnesota North Stars player Bill Masterton died as a result of head trauma suffered during a game. The fact that absolutely no discipline was assessed for knocking a player’s helmet off, then shoving him headfirst to the ice, is antithetical to everything the Department of Player Safety should stand for.

With this latest decision, the Department of Player Safety makes it fairly clear that they do not intend to seriously penalize Wilson for anything he does. Unlike most other players who make dangerous plays on a regular basis, Wilson is a top-six forward on a good team. The Capitals have no reason to trade him or waive him. Head Coach Peter Laviolette has spoken supportively about Wilson today; he’s not going to scratch Wilson for endangering his opponents. With effectively no discipline from the league, and no consequences from his team, Wilson has no reason to change his behavior.

This gives the NHL, and the Capitals, two moral responsibilities.

First, unless we are all very lucky, one day Wilson is going to seriously injure someone. The more we learn about head trauma and CTE, the more concerning it is that the NHL refuses to acknowledge it as a problem or to provide support for former players suffering from it. That will be not only on Wilson, but also on the league and the team that tacitly gave him permission to continue making plays that ran that risk.

Second, the NHL’s continued refusal to discipline Wilson also risks Wilson’s safety.

In 2004, Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore injured Vancouver Canucks captain and star Markus Näslund with a hit the referees deemed legal and the NHL agreed didn’t require supplemental discipline. The Vancouver team and media were outraged; one of Näslund’s teammates said there was a bounty on Moore; and two meetings later Canucks player Matt Cooke fought Moore. That in itself wasn’t the problem—the problem came later that game when Canucks player Todd Bertuzzi also tried to fight an unwilling Moore, knocked him out with a punch as he continued to refuse to fight, continued beating him as he lay helpless on the ice, and ended his career.

Moore was 25 at the time; it was his first NHL season. Bertuzzi was criminally charged for his actions, and both he and the Canucks were sued. Neither of these got Moore his health or his ability to play hockey back.

Hockey has changed for the better since 2004, but in some ways it is not much more compassionate now than it was then. Many players are still reluctant to seek help for mental health struggles. Reporters and fans still react impatiently when players struggle to perform through injury, and praise players who risk their safety to play a full-contact sport with broken bones #BecauseItsTheCup. “Hockey is tough,” some of its evangelists still say. “If you want to watch a wimpy sport, go watch basketball or soccer”—as if concern for other humans disqualifies a person as a hockey fan.

We do see fewer fights, but we also still see GMs signing players whose primary skillset is punching, and see coaches putting those players in the lineups for rivalry matches. At what point are teams going to play an enforcer against Wilson for morale? At what point is that enforcer going to try to exact the punishment that the league won’t? If Wilson himself is seriously injured as a direct result of his team’s and his league’s refusal to give him any meaningful consequences for his actions, that, too, is their responsibility.

The Department of Player Safety is meaningless right now, and this incident only underscores that. To protect every player in the league, offenders as well as victims, they need to follow their own rules.

This article has been edited to clarify the circumstances of Brendan Shanahan’s departure from the Department of Player Safety.