Tom Wilson knows precisely when he will be allowed back on the ice. Too bad Brandon Carlo has no such certainty.
Not after the hit Carlo absorbed from the NHL’s resident predator, Wilson, a blow to the head that cost Wilson seven games and cost Carlo a night at Massachusetts General Hospital, injurious enough to sideline him potentially for weeks.
Carlo is officially listed by the Bruins as having an “upper-body injury,” but there’s very little doubt he sustained a concussion, and with one documented concussion already in his history (courtesy of Wilson’s Capitals teammate Alex Ovechkin back in 2017), the Bruins understandably will treat him with caution and patience.
All while the NHL treats Wilson, a serial offender, with kid gloves.
Start with the fact that the on-ice officials at TD Garden didn’t even penalize Wilson in Friday night’s game, which hindsight casts as an unequivocal mistake, no matter how many defenses are mounted by them or the Capitals.
Seven-game suspensions aren’t handed out for defensible hits; it’s a sizable amount of games under any circumstance, and even more so in this pandemic-shortened season. So yes, the oversight was corrected by the league’s Department of Player Safety, but that’s small consolation for Carlo, who will surely miss more than that.
Then take note of the fact that the league went out of its way to classify the penalty as “boarding” rather than a hit to the head, despite acknowledging it was Carlo’s head that took the brunt of the deliberate, unnecessary collision. Dressing up the name of the infraction doesn’t hide its seriousness.
“While there are aspects of this hit that may skirt the line between suspendable and non-suspendable, it is the totality of the circumstances that caused this play to merit supplemental discipline,” the NHL said in the suspension video. “What separates this hit from others is the direct and significant contact to a defenseless player’s face and head, causing a violent impact with the glass.”
Of all the ongoing evolutions in sports, attention to and understanding of the risk of repeated head injuries is one of the foremost advancements in the way we think. Which is why Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy made it even clearer why he (accurately) called the hit “predatory” on the night it happened and why he isn’t about to back down from his belief that Wilson crossed a line.
“It’s people’s heads and it’s their careers,” Cassidy said after the Bruins held a voluntary practice Monday. “After a while, you can negotiate whatever you want as Players Association reps, owners, GMs, the NHL disciplinary committee; it does fall on the player at some point to have respect for a fellow player.
“Guys play long enough to know, it’s out there; there are serious head injuries that have affected X number of players. We should be better educated, and we are, and players should use that education on the ice.
“It’s a fast game and things are going to happen out there. It’s a violent game. But they should know better in certain situations. That would be my opinion. Players have to own some of these hits when they know a guy is in a vulnerable position.
“We all want to win the game and be the hardest teams to play against out there, but there are situations players have to hold themselves accountable. It won’t get corrected until they do.”
Don’t hold your breath waiting for Wilson to lead the way.
Which brings us to the crux of the kid-glove treatment. This is a player who from 2017-18 was suspended four times in a 105-game stretch, a run the Globe’s Matt Porter pointed out as unprecedented in league annals. But since Wilson hadn’t been in any similar trouble since, he cleared the 18-month collectively bargained window and was no longer considered a “repeat offender” by the DOPS.
As much as time can and should afford forgiveness in some cases, it just doesn’t feel right to treat dangerous on-ice behavior like a car insurance discount.
“It’s a good question,” Cassidy said, “I think people deserve, if they change their ways and correct some of the behavior that got them in trouble before, they should be dealt with that way. If you don’t and you continue, then I do believe you do have to learn from your past, especially when it comes to situations where you’re getting into disciplinary issues. I do believe it’s inevitable they’re going to look back on a guy’s record.”
The NHL acknowledged it did as much, citing Wilson’s “substantial disciplinary record” as a factor, but if you can’t apply that consideration to the actual penalty, any instructive measures are lost and the next generation of Wilsons are emboldened to keep this going.
Cassidy said a text exchange with Carlo revealed he is “feeling better,” and called that “good news,” and certainly the Capitals all expressed concern for the 24-year-old defenseman’s long-term welfare. But coach Peter Laviolette has not backed down at all from his defense of Wilson, and his hyperbolic assertion, “If this is a suspendable play, then all hitting is probably going to have to be removed,” does this important conversation no favors.
Makes you wonder what one of the newest Capitals must make of the whole thing, how Zdeno Chara might have reacted had he still been the Bruins captain or whether he’s feeling awkward watching a new teammate put one of his former brothers in such jeopardy. Maybe Wilson wouldn’t have risked such a hit at all had Chara still been in black and gold.
But the NHL shouldn’t have to rely on that sort of vigilante justice, and should just do a better job itself.