LAS VEGAS — When one Pittsburgh Penguins fan posted the address of Tom Wilson’s family on social media, another one commented, “Good to know.”
Hate mail for Washington’s controversial crash-and-banger was sealed and delivered to Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
That rookie Zach Aston-Reese saw Wilson’s shoulder coming didn’t matter. Programmed to play the game hard and with energy or not at all, Wilson finished his check high, he broke a man’s jaw, and infuriated a legion of keyword warriors.
No one actually came knocking on the door of his home to exact revenge.
“I’m glad that didn’t go down,” says Wilson, 24 hours before the puck drops on the Stanley Cup Final. “I think there’s a lot of bluffers.
“It’s become a thing the last five, 10 years: Anyone can say anything they want to you with the click of a button. I actually shut down my Twitter.
“There’s got to be a line somewhere. It’s a sport. It’s a game everyone loves. The reason they’re so fired up is because they’re passionate. I understand that.”
The divisive Toronto native, the last man sitting at a podium before a small group of reporters after Media Day’s musical chairs, was in a contemplative mood Sunday.
The 24-year-old spoke of the three-game suspension he served for that Aston-Reese hit as “one of the hardest things to do in my hockey career.” Despite his reputation for the reckless, Wilson had never been banned. Some believe he’d gotten away with an illegal check of Brian Dumoulin earlier in that series and blindsiding Columbus’s Alex Wennberg in Round 1.
Wilson, who has 11 points and 23 penalty minutes in these playoffs, was surrounded by his teammates when the department of player safety’s ruling came down.
“We were expecting maybe one. Maybe not even anything. So when we heard it was three, that’s a tough pill to swallow,” Wilson says. “That first game especially, you’re driving to the rink and you’re among all the Pittsburgh fans and you’re like, ‘This doesn’t feel right. I should be out there with my guys and going to battle.’ It was extremely tough. You’re behind enemy lines. You’re getting chirped in the stands.”
Yet without Wilson, a player who has grown from the fourth-line to a first-line impact, the Capitals were able to slay their black-and-yellow dragon and advance to the Eastern Conference Final.
“It wasn’t just me. Burky [Andre Burakovsky] was out. Nicky [Nicklas Backstrom] went down [with a hand injury]. That’s what this team’s about. All year long, we’ve had moments that shaped the team we are. A lot of adversity. When Nisky [Matt Niskanen] goes down early in the year, you learn to deal with it then. We didn’t know what identity we’d have early on. That’s maybe why we’re here. You had to go through it together as a team. All those moments shape it.”
The severe Aston-Reese punishment — three playoff games is roughly equal to six regular-season ones when it comes to suspensions — was a long time coming, many believed.
“I’ve never been a player that’s been loved by the team I’m playing against. [My family and friends] have learned to deal with it from a young age, especially in Toronto with that crazy market,” Wilson explains. “It’s such a fast game, and you trust yourself for so long. I played five years with basically nothing on my rap sheet. Good hard hits, near the top of the league in hits, and you don’t get suspended. Then all of a sudden, this year it seemed like one after another. That’s tough mentally.
“I’m not trying to hurt guys. I’m out there playing the sport the way it’s meant to be played. I trust myself. It’s a fast game. Everyone goes home in the off-season and tries to get as big and strong as possible. There’s no one going, ‘I’m gonna take four days off.’ If you go to our gym, the amount of work put in is insane. Everyone’s so strong and in such good shape and you’re flying around out there. When there’s collisions, guys are going to get hurt.”
The last two hockey teams standing rank one and two in hits this post-season. Washington has thrown 603, and that’s with Wilson sitting thrice. Vegas has 595 hits, and that’s with four fewer games played.
With all the speed and skill flooding these rosters, Wilson still predicts a physical series. In a town legendary for its fights, a clash with Golden Knights tough guy Ryan Reaves feels inevitable.
Yet Wilson insists he’s trying to alter his attack since the suspension, while preserving his Red Bull–like energy. He had one check all lined up in the Tampa series and a cautionary thought flashed through his mind.
‘Oh, my God. This is going to be maybe a bigger hit than Aston-Reese.’
In an attempt to lessen the blow, Wilson’s skate toe-picked, he stumbled, and his face smashed into his opponent’s knee. Penguins fans everywhere swelled with schadenfreude.
“It wouldn’t be smart of me not to change. You gotta adapt with the times. I think the sport’s changing. There’s no sugar-coating it,” Wilson says.
As for the haters and false threats and anger, Wilson won’t let it sap from this moment, this chance to realize his dream through monster hits and, increasingly, offensive contributions.
“It’s pretty funny what people say behind a computer or on their phones, on Twitter. You see everything,” Wilson says. “You can look back and laugh at it now, but anything you could’ve imagined was said.”