By Kristina Rutherford in Washington, D.C.
By Kristina Rutherford in Washington, D.C.
One of the NHL's most polarizing players, Tom Wilson is working to clean up his game without sacrificing its physical edge — and laying out the blueprint for the league's new breed of power forward in the process

Tom Wilson starts nodding before he hears the end of the question — that’s an emphatic “yes.” He’s sitting in a small conference room above the Washington Capitals’ practice facility after an off-day skate. At the end of practice, Wilson flipped a puck over the glass to a kid holding a sign saying: “A puck from Wilson is my #1 birthday wish!” Wish granted, buddy. Then, in a real jiffy — 10 minutes, tops — Wilson got his equipment off, had a “quick rinse” (“I used soap, don’t worry,” he swears) and turned up here.

The Capitals winger immediately got comfortable in his chair, legs stretched out under the table in front of him, sockless feet in a pair of Capitals flip-flops. He’s dressed head-to-toe in team gear, and since it’s mid-November, he’s also sporting an aggressive moustache.

The question that set Wilson nodding was about whether his play has always elicited an impassioned reaction from opposing fans and players. Yes, it sure has, and the 25-year-old doesn’t recall a time when it didn’t. “I remember pretty vividly a dad coming over the glass and being like, ‘Wilson, you suck!’” he says. His own dad, Keven, was one of his team’s coaches back then, and to avoid targeted heckling from irate parents for the rest of that season, they took the kids’ nameplates off the backs of their jerseys. Wilson was eight years old.

He received his first pre-game threat at nine or 10. “’My son’s going to take care of you on the ice, and I’m going to go take care of your dad in the stands!’” Wilson says. His voice gets a little deeper imitating the angry dad. “Stuff like that, you wouldn’t believe,” he says. “I learned to deal with it at a very young age.”

The reaction has only spread and intensified as Wilson has grown up and played under an increasingly bright spotlight. Now seven years into his NHL career, there isn’t a player in the league quite as polarizing as the Toronto-born power forward, and maybe that’s because there aren’t many players in the NHL quite like him — full stop. The blend of new and old school, skilled and physical as all hell — Wilson is a bit of a unicorn, and that’s part of what makes him so valuable. A new breed of power forward in a league that’s ever-changing in its tolerance of physical play, he’s writing a blueprint for the role in the modern NHL; a how-to on skating the line between tough guy and dangerous liability. And, as Wilson has found, that line is incredibly fine. “It’s a question I’ve been working on for years,” he says. “It’s what I’ve been trying to find the answer to.”

Wilson is beloved by D.C. fans. On the road? Not so much.

Tom Wilson has always enjoyed slamming his body into other people’s. He couldn’t wait until he was old enough to have time in practice devoted to learning body checking. “It was, ‘Okay, next year’s hitting. Can’t wait,” he says. “It was fun for me.”

He remembers his first practice to feature checking, back at North Toronto Arena (the answering machine message there now advertises the barn as the “home rink of Stanley Cup champion, Tom Wilson”). “Literally one guy was in the middle, everyone else was around the faceoff circle and each guy would take a turn to go in and hit the guy in the middle,” Wilson says. “That was a drill.” Body checking was introduced in games when he was nine; these days across Canada, it’s introduced at 13 and 14.

Keven Wilson says his second of three boys (“we gave up trying for the daughter,” he quips) was an instant bruiser while playing defence during his first year of AA. But his stint on the point didn’t last long. “It drove him absolutely crazy to have to stand at the blueline and watch his teammates battle in the corners,” Keven says. “He wanted to be in that battle. He told me he’d quit if he couldn’t go back to forward.”

Wilson says that last detail is a shade dramatic. “My dad’s memory is probably foggy,” he says, laughing. “But yeah, I did want to go back and play forward because it’s more action.”

What Al Crawford noticed when he coached an 11-year-old Wilson is that the team’s best player was also its strongest leader. “It’s something I really didn’t believe in, naming captains at that age, but he stood out so much as a team guy in the room, not a guy who tried to make it all about himself, that you had to acknowledge it somehow,” Crawford says. “He was always communicative, always positive. He was very competitive, but in the healthiest possible way. He had something like a 95-per cent average in school as he got older, too.

“I know this may sound a little, ‘Are you sure this kid’s real?’” Crawford adds, laughing. His family also has three boys, and the Crawford and Wilson kids all grew up together. “Well, it’s so true,” he says. “He was the type of athlete and kid that you looked at and said: ‘Whatever you decide to do, you’re going to go deep.’ Everything was impressive about him.”

Heck, Wilson started walking at eight months. He played lacrosse and soccer and baseball, and even sort of ran track. When he was in Grade 6, nobody from his school had signed up for the 10-kilometre race at Toronto’s city-wide public school track meet, so he filled the void. He’d never run that far in his life. Wilson showed up wearing basketball shoes and shorts and a Steve Nash jersey. Out of 175 kids, about 174 of whom were wearing running gear, Wilson came 10th. “He wasn’t too pleased with the outcome, but we thought it was a victory,” Keven says. “Afterwards, he was just exhausted. He’s got a big heart.”

Running certainly wasn’t his thing (Wilson vowed he’d never run that far again), but when he was about 14, he decided hockey was. Always a high-profile player in the minor ranks, Wilson had a huge growth spurt at 14. “I kind of had to learn to skate again, because my limbs were flailing everywhere,” he says. The summer before his OHL draft year, an agent told Wilson: “I think you can play hockey for a living.” Wilson couldn’t believe it, since most of his elite teammates had months earlier committed to agents and even colleges. “I said, ‘Really? That’s exciting,’” he recalls. “It was kind of that belief in yourself that maybe you could do it.”

That belief only grew in Plymouth with the Whalers. Wilson came in at 16 — already six-foot-two and 185 pounds — and realized his physical play could help keep him in the lineup. As a rookie in the OHL he had six points and 71 penalty minutes in 28 games. “He played hard, he played physical, but what I really liked is he also had skill,” says then-Whalers coach, Mike Vellucci. “That’s a rare combination. Everybody looks for that.”

The trouble Vellucci found was that Wilson focused mostly on the physical. He got rewarded for it, too, voted the OHL’s “best body checker” after his rookie season. And that’s the one-dimensional brush many painted him with. “I always thought Tom got a bad rap,” Vellucci says. “People think he doesn’t have skill and that’s totally false. He has incredible speed, he can play with the top players.

“My thing with Tom is I wanted him to work on his skill more and try to use it more … I kept telling him I wanted him to make more plays. I just don’t know if he believed in himself as an offensive player. I don’t know if he ever had that encouragement from a coach before.”

Vellucci always told Wilson: “You can play physical but you can also play the game. Combine the two and you’ll be a very special player.’”

Wilson managed the combination in his third and final year in Plymouth, when he put up more than a point- and penalty-per game in the regular season, then had 17 points and 41 penalty minutes in 12 playoff games.

The season prior, the Capitals had drafted him in the first round, 16th overall. Vellucci had watched Wilson grow from a fourth-liner to one of the Whalers’ biggest offensive and physical threats. He figured Wilson could do the same at the highest level, especially given his work ethic. “He’s all-in at all times,” the coach says. “I love and respect that about him.”

Case in point: Near the end of a scrimmage at training camp ahead of Wilson’s second season with the Whalers, a veteran hit the team’s top import pick, Rickard Rakell. It wasn’t a cheap hit, Vellucci recalls, “but it was pretty hard.”

Enter Tom Wilson. He chased down the veteran. They dropped the gloves and got some punches off, but the fight was quickly broken up.

“Will, what are you doing?” Velucci asked. “What are you thinking?”

“You can’t hit the first-rounder,” Wilson responded.

“But that guy’s your teammate!” Vellucci told him.

“Yeah, I know,” Wilson said. “But you can’t hit the first-rounder.”

Wilson remembers the fight. He says a lot more gloves were dropped during training camps in those days, and even at the NHL level when he broke into the league. He decides: “It was probably a little much.”

Leipsic says that a Wilson hit makes a unique sound because No. 43 isn't just a big body, he also "comes at you with pace"

At six-foot-four and 220 pounds, the most common thing you’ll hear about Wilson when speaking to other Capitals is that he’s “big” and “strong.” You’ll hear that he’s “fast” and “creates a lot of space” with that frame. It’s the Tom Wilson on-ice refrain.

Here’s a sampling of the off-ice Wilson refrain.

“He’s a really good human being,” says Washington’s head coach, Todd Reirden. “He leads a lot by example in terms of how he trains, how he prepares, how he eats and how he practices. He lives life the right way, so he’s a great role model for our young guys.”

“He thinks of the team before himself in many regards,” says fellow Capitals forward, T.J. Oshie. “I think on the ice speaks for itself — he does all the little things, plays in all situations, sticks up for anyone that he has to. But in the room, he always knows things. He knows what guy’s wives’ and kids’ names are. If I have family in town, I would go to Tom to ask him where I should bring them for dinner. He’s very interested in what other guys are doing, not just what he has to do on that given day.”

Radko Gudas fought Wilson in 2014 while playing with the Tampa Bay Lightning. (“I know how strong he can be,” Gudas says, and that’s “very strong.”) When he joined the Capitals this season, Gudas found Wilson was central in ensuring he felt comfortable. “He wants to take care of new guys that come in, wants to make them feel very welcome,” the defenceman says. “And you want that from a guy that’s as physical as he is, to be a great guy in the locker room, too. He’s a glue guy.”

Last season, Wilson launched “Forty Three’s Friends,” which sees him donate tickets to kids waiting for wishes to be granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He donates money to a local youth organization every time the Capitals win. When Wilson had his day with the Stanley Cup in 2018, he invited a recent cancer survivor from SickKids in Toronto, and $100 donations to the hospital that day earned fans a photo with Wilson and the Cup. “I hope people understand, there’s a hockey player and then there’s a person,” Wilson says. “A lot of people don’t, right? A lot of the time they’re looking at us and we’re like — items or whatever. We play, but there’s a person to every player.”

Dwayne Blais is one of the Capitals’ skill coaches and he’s been working with Wilson since early last season. After a conversation about Wilson’s skill, Blais wants to add something he feels hasn’t been addressed. “The one thing to stress with Tom,” the coach says, “he’s a good guy. I mean, Tom’s a really great guy.”

Wilson's coaches and teammates stress that when he's not demolishing opposing players "he’s a really good human being"

The Washington Capitals are coming off a summer of partying in fountains and celebrating their Stanley Cup win in the city for weeks on end. It’s fair to say no NHL team has been drunk in public as much as the Capitals have been, led by ringleader and captain Alex Ovechkin. But today, it’s back to business and all the partying is in the rear-view: The Capitals are three days away from opening the 2018–19 season, and the defending champions are playing in a pre-season game against the St. Louis Blues.

It’s the second period. Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist cuts across the middle of the ice in Washington’s zone. He gets a weak shot off just before Wilson comes at him, left shoulder down, and — BOOM. The high hit sends Sundqvist’s body spinning through the air. He settles face down on the ice. Sundqvist has a concussion, a cut on his face and a shoulder injury. He won’t play again until October 25, missing St. Louis’s first eight games.

The day the Capitals open their regular season, the NHL hands Wilson a 20-game suspension — the sixth-longest in the league’s history — citing a “high, forceful hit, which makes Sundqvist’s head the main point of contact on a hit where such head contact was avoidable and causes an injury.”

Since Wilson is a repeat offender, suspended twice in the previous pre-season and then again in the playoffs for a check that concussed Zach Aston-Reese and broke his jaw, the penalty this time is more severe. It’s Wilson’s fourth suspension in 105 games, and the NHL video explaining the decision points out it’s “an unprecedented frequency of suspensions in the history of the Department of Player Safety.”

Wilson signed a $31 million, six-year contract in the off-season. He’ll have to wait 14 games — an arbitrator will reduce the ban from 20 — to get started on the 2018–19 campaign.

It happens at least once or twice a game, Wilson says, his hands flat on the conference room table. He’ll be skating towards an opposing player who’s carrying the puck with his head mostly down. Wilson could absolutely demolish a guy working with that level of on-ice obliviousness, but instead of finishing his check like he would’ve a year or two ago, Wilson will offer a verbal warning and then go after the puck. He’ll say: “Heads up.”

It’s one way Wilson says he has adapted to the new NHL. Following each suspension, the big winger cited a lesson learned, and there have been many along the way. He says since there’s so much less hitting than even five years ago, players aren’t expecting impact, and they’re in “different positions than they’ve ever been before.” In other words, they’re more vulnerable.

Wilson remembers his rookie season in 2013–14, when he’d get the puck on the boards for a breakout and instantly dish it off and get ready to absorb a hit. “Now you see wingers making small little plays right on the boards, and it’s like, ‘Don’t hit me. Don’t hit me,’” he says. Often, Wilson doesn’t. “It’s the way the game is going, so you’re continuously adapting.”

While forechecking, Wilson says he has to be aware of who on the opposing team is collecting the puck in the corner. “Brooks Orpik [who’s now retired] goes back differently for the puck than someone that just came into the league,” Wilson says. “Everything’s different. I came into the OHL, it was fighting, hitting, line brawls. Now it doesn’t happen. So when these younger guys come into the NHL, they’re playing differently than the era before. A 10-year-old is not doing body checking practice as I was as an eight-year-old. The feeders, the minor hockey, junior hockey, it’s trending a different way. That’s what’s changing the game, right? It’s why a guy like Brooks Orpik plays differently than a Christian Djoos, or a guy who just came in.”

It has taken time to adapt along with the constantly evolving league. “I had a year or so there where it felt like a lot was going wrong, I was getting a lot of heat and got some suspensions,” Wilson says. He was labelled a head-hunter, a predator, seen as the biggest villain in the game. “It was just the snowball effect,” he says. The snowball stopped growing last November, when he served the last of his 14 games. Wilson hasn’t been suspended since. “Then as we played more games, you’re thinking, ‘It’s all going to be okay.’ But it’s tough,” he says. “It was a time in the game where big hits and physicality are in the spotlight — that’s what everyone was talking about.”

Little has changed there. Oshie has long been a vocal supporter of Wilson’s, one of many in the Capitals dressing room who stands up for his teammate. “I think he’s drawn the short end of the stick on a bunch of suspensions and they’ve been trying to make an example out of him for a while now,” Oshie says. “I think he’s gotten real unlucky because he’s a lot bigger than people. I know I get elbowed in the head all the time by guys, but they don’t seem to get in trouble for it. The league has kind of made Tom out to be some bad guy, so I blame them for that.

“But he’s found how he has to play to keep people focused on him playing hockey and not him hitting or getting suspended,” Oshie continues. “There’s a lot of guys he could have hit this year and last year that he just doesn’t, and that’s probably a problem for that guy because he didn’t get to learn the lesson that you can’t go down the middle of the ice with your head down. That’s kind of the way the league’s trending, these guys that are fast and no one can ever hit them. Well, now you’ve got a guy like Tom, who’s faster or as fast as them, who’s bigger and stronger, and these guys don’t know how to protect themselves.”

When Wilson does go for a full-force hit, look out, and opponents still have to look out on the regular — he’s fourth overall in the league in hits this season. Capitals forward Brendan Leipsic knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end, having played against Wilson in training camps for Team Canada over the years, and during their junior days. He says it hurts extra because Wilson is not only a big body, “but he can skate as well as anybody on our team, so he comes at you with pace.

“I try to stay away from him now on the ice. Even on our own team he can sometimes get in your way in practice,” Leipsic says. “You can really hear the crunch.”

More than just a tough guy, Wilson was the first player this season to record a power-play, short-handed and game-winning goal — to check all three boxes

The 25-year-old from Winnipeg heard “the crunch” recently, when Wilson hit Rangers forward Brendan Lemieux, who he later fought. “He hit him right by our bench and he hit him really hard,” Leipsic says. “Tommy can really hit. He plays hard but he also plays kind of nasty, and you don’t see a lot of guys like that.”

Wilson’s speedy and skilled sometimes-linemate, Jakub Vrana, has never been on the other end of a Wilson hit, not even due to an accidental collision. “I don’t want to be hit by him, ever,” Vrana says, brow furrowed, sitting in his stall after a pre-game skate. “I’m five-foot-11, how do you think that would go?” He answers his own question: “Not really good.” Vrana makes a fist and knocks three times on his teeth for luck — a Russian version of knocking on wood.

“I see people disappear in front of my eyes a couple of times,” Vrana says. “Guy in front of me, he just disappears because Tom hit him. It happens. The way he plays, there’s a lot of people that probably hate him. Once he hits people really hard, obviously you don’t want to play against that guy.”

What Blais has been working on with Wilson is being more in control of his body when he’s doling out those hard checks. “When he goes in to make hits, being aware where his stick is and where his hands are and his upper body is,” the coach says. “Have a little bit more control, so at least going in he doesn’t have one arm going one way and one arm going the other way that may catch a guy in the head, or may create a vulnerable situation.”

Blais began working with Wilson during his last suspension, and found he adapted quickly to suggestions. “He was trying to make sure he kind of creates a new image of himself,” Blais says. “I think coming out of that [last suspension] he did a really good job of reinventing himself as an all-around player in that top-six role on a really good team, and being a big part of their success. As he gets older, I think you’re going to see more and more of him figuring out what he can and can’t do, and knowing what the guidelines are a little bit more for him.”

Through 30 games this season, Wilson had 20 points and 29 penalty minutes. Back in 2017–18, he had 83 PIM through 30 games. He has come as close as ever to mastering playing on the edge (so far) while continuing to improve his skill. Last season, Wilson had a career-high 40 points, and he’s been a staple in the team’s top six the past couple years, playing these days on the No. 1 line alongside Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. He kills penalties and he’s on the second power-play unit. In a Nov. 23 shootout loss to Vancouver, he logged the most ice time of any Capitals forward. The first player in the NHL this season to record a power-play, short-handed and game-winning goal — to check off all three — was Wilson. “I think skill-wise he got way better over a couple years,” Vrana says. “He’s got a really good shot and he has the speed, he can make the play. Once he plays with the skill players he can join in pretty good.”

Reirden took over as head coach ahead of the 2018–19 season, so he started off without Wilson in the lineup. “That wasn’t a great situation,” Reirden says. “Tom’s a guy who brings everybody into the game for us — he brings everybody into the fight, so to speak. I don’t mean actual fighting, I mean competitiveness and battle and being all-in, to try to help our team win. We missed that. He’s a special guy in terms of that and his leadership ability. And it’s only going to get better and better.”

General manager Brian MacLellan says he’s seen “tremendous” growth from No. 43 since Wilson’s rookie season, especially when it comes to on-ice maturity. “I think he’s adjusted his game to the way the game is being called,” MacLellan says. “I think he’s figured out how to be physical, how to do it in the right time, how to eliminate the high-risk hits that the Department of Player Safety takes a microscope to, and he’s produced offensively. He’s done everything that we could possibly imagine him doing.”

It isn’t easy to play the way Wilson does, MacLellan acknowledges, which is probably why there aren’t many players like him. “It’s hard to contribute offensively and to be physical, not to take penalties,” he says. “Because of the way he skates and the strength he has, the hits are going to be impactful, and it seems to me that every impactful hit gets put under the microscope now.” Because of Wilson’s history, the GM adds, “I think every time he hits someone, people are throwing up red flags.”

And how. Wilson is no stranger to red flags, and making sure all his hits are clean in a fast-paced game remains a work in progress. It might always be. “You have to be very cerebral while you’re on the ice and try and trust your tendencies. But you still want to play physical,” Wilson says. “It’s difficult. I mean, there really is no good answer.

“You just have to try to find that balance.”

Detroit fans' response to a third-period goal of Wilson's in November pretty much sums up the reaction he's inspired since he was eight years old

Wilson has been sitting in the boardroom for 45 minutes now, and though he says talking about himself isn’t his favourite, he’s enjoying debunking stories his dad relayed about him. Wilson confirms he did not call the Capitals captain “Mr. Ovechkin” when they first met, as Keven tells it. “I think I called him ‘Ovi,’” he says, grinning.

One of the team’s media relations staff members has arrived to signal it’s time to go, and he’s been waiting for at least 15 minutes. “I’m almost done,” Wilson promises, looking over at the very patient Tommy Chalk. Wilson isn’t done because he’s been thinking about his family, who helped him get here: About Keven; about his 92-year-old grandpa, Jake Avery, who golfs and watches every Capitals game; about his mom, Neville, who took a lot of heat from other hockey parents when he was a kid. His brother, Pete, is five years older and always let him tag along; Jamie is two years younger, and they hang out all the time. “Brothers are a big part of it,” Wilson says. “I wasn’t playing on the backyard rink by myself.”

And oh, the battles on the backyard Wilson rink in North Toronto were epic. More often than not, the middle Wilson kid was involved, since the seven-year gap between Jamie and Pete was a tad unfair. “My older brother would feel bad picking on my younger brother, so I was in the middle and I would kind of get it from both sides,” Wilson says.

Most fights were between Wilson and Jamie, since they’re closest in age. Neville would usually ask Pete, the eldest and presumably most mature, to break up the younger two while they were brawling. “He was generally the one that had the calm head,” Wilson says. But that didn’t always work.

“Sometimes,” Wilson says, grinning, “the agitator that I was, I would find a way to bring Pete into the fight.”

Wilson loves this stuff, the fighting and hitting. It’s at his core to be a bruiser, and it’s been part of his identity basically forever. But he’s learned a lot since those early days, and he swears he’s always ready to learn more, to continue to evolve as the league does. For now, he’s found the balance that makes him one of the most imposing and valuable players in the NHL. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll continue to skate that fine line, offering one kind of heads up to opponents who are looking vulnerable and another to opponents looking ready to absorb a hit. If you want to play incident-free in today’s NHL, you have to constantly adapt — the blueprint is ever-changing. Just ask Tom Wilson.

Photo Credits

Rob Carr/Getty Images; Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images; Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images; Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images; Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images; Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images.