NHL commissioner Gary Bettman believes that Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson needs "an appropriate wake-up call" to re-evaluate his reckless play, which is one reason he upheld Wilson's 20-game suspension in a ruling on Thursday.
Bettman rejected the NHLPA's appeal of the 20-game ban (read the ruling here), which was handed down by the NHL Department of Player Safety for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist during a Sept. 30 preseason game. As a repeat offender, Wilson would forfeit more than $1.2 million in salary during the suspension.
His appeal hearing was Oct. 18 in New York, as Bettman heard from Wilson, the NHLPA, Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan and Player Safety boss George Parros.
Bettman's ruling takes on the two main arguments from the NHLPA on Wilson's behalf.
The first is that the hit itself wasn't worthy of a suspension, because either Sundqvist's head wasn't the main point of contact on the check or because contact with the head was "unavoidable" for Wilson on the play.
In summary, Bettman felt the hit was in clear violation of Rule 48, which states that a hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable is not permitted.
Bettman noted that the Department of Player Safety's panel of experts "unanimously" agreed that Wilson connected with the head primarily, and that a shoulder injury Sundqvist suffered along with a concussion was caused by his fall to the ice rather than from his shoulder having been the main point of contact on Wilson's hit.
Plus, as Bettman noted, Wilson admitted during testimony that he made contact with Sundqvist's head on the check.
"While he also maintained that he made significant contact with Mr. Sundqvist's body, when pressed, Mr. Wilson acknowledged that he could not conclude one way or the other whether Mr. Sundqvist's head was the main point of contact on the play," wrote Bettman. "I conclude that the video and other evidence provide clear and convincing evidence that it was."
As for the hit being unavoidable, Bettman said that Sundqvist didn't materially change the position of his body before receiving the check, which would have potentially lessened the punishment for Wilson. He also noted that while Wilson said "he could not have done anything differently to avoid checking Mr. Sundqvist's head," his own general manager, MacLellan, testified that Wilson "had options" to avoid delivering a blow to the head.
The other argument from the NHLPA was that if Wilson violated Rule 48 in Bettman's eyes, his suspension should be no more than eight games rather than 20 games. Bettman's justification of the 20-game suspension was the most anticipated aspect of this ruling.
It noted that a 2013 suspension of Buffalo Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta used a "two times multiplier" for the repeat offender, doubling his suspension from five games in his previous offense to 10 games. Since Wilson was suspended for three playoff games after breaking the jaw of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese in the second round last season, the NHLPA argued that Wilson should have been suspended just six games plus two more for Sundqvist's injury.
The longest previous suspensions of Wilson's career were four regular-season games (for boarding Sam Blais of Anaheim) and three playoff games (for the Aston-Reese hit). But he also had an unprecedented run of suspensions and warnings from the NHL in barely more than a year.
Wilson was suspended twice in September 2017, suspended in May in the second round of the playoffs and then again in September for the Sundqvist hit.
Meanwhile, Parros met with Wilson twice in the past 14 months, including in Toronto in August, to talk about his physical play. He called Wilson during the Stanley Cup Final with a warning after Wilson delivered a hit to Vegas center Jonathan Marchessault. The August meeting specifically addressed "how to make the necessary adjustments to his game that might help to avoid or minimize the likelihood of him executing illegal and dangerous checks," wrote Bettman. The next month, Wilson delivered the hit to Sundqvist.
"Mr. Wilson's involvement in yet another illegal and dangerous head check so soon after his August meeting with Mr. Parros strongly suggests to me that Mr. Wilson is 'not getting the message,' and it reinforced my firm conviction that the lengthy suspension issued by [the Dept. of Player Safety] in this case was necessary and appropriate," wrote Bettman. "I reject the NHLPA's suggestion that an eight-game suspension is sufficient under these circumstances."
The NHLPA brought up other players who had been suspended multiple times in a short time period. But Bettman noted that among the players mentioned, Wilson is "the only player to have committed two illegal checks to the head, both of which caused serious head injuries in such rapid succession."
In specifically defending the 20-game ban, Bettman said Parros determined the number by looking at other players who had been suspended three times in 18 months, because Wilson was the only one to receive four suspensions in 18 months.
On the high end of that scale was Raffi Torres, who was suspended 25 games in 2012 for a hit to the head of Marian Hossa of the Blackhawks. (It was reduced to 21 games by Bettman.) That was a "10 times" multiplier from his most previous suspension. Parros used a "three times" multiplier on Wilson: His three playoff games were valued at six regular-season games -- an accepted bit of math when it comes to postseason bans -- which meant an 18-game suspension, with an additional two games added due to the injury to Sundqvist.
"In my judgement, a 20-game regular-season suspension assessed to Mr. Wilson reflects and accounts for appropriately the unique combination of factors involved in this case, including the gravity of the offense, Mr. Wilson's prior disciplinary record (particularly within the relatively short period of time in which it was amassed), the multiple warnings and guidance he has received from the DPS and the seriousness of the injury," Bettman wrote.
The nature of the injury was an undeniable influence in the severity of this ban. Bettman wrote that "head checks are a matter of great concern" to the NHL and its players, and that since the dawn of Rule 48 "the league has continued to emphasize its concern and commitment to rules designed to prevent and minimize the number of head injuries."
That included, according to Bettman, "countless hours" spent by Player Safety officials speaking to players like Wilson.
The next step in the process for Wilson is an appeal to a neutral arbitrator, which is the final chance for a reduction of his suspension per the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.
It's where the NHLPA has had some success in reducing penalties. The 20-game suspension Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman received for attacking an on-ice official was cut down to 10 games in 2016. In October 2018, Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson's suspension for domestic abuse was reduced from 27 to 18 games by a neutral arbitrator on appeal.
Wilson has already missed eight games for the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals, having played on their top line with Alex Ovechkin during that postseason run.