In what seemed to be a normal exhibition game between the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals on the night of May 3 turned into a largely controversial debate surrounding player safety.
After a seemingly harmless mix-up in front of Washington’s goal, Rangers star forward Pavel Buchnevich found himself face down on the ground. While attempting to get up, Buchnevich received three punches to the back of his head courtesy of the Capitals’ most well known enforcer, Tom Wilson.
The problem does not stop there, however. As Rangers forward Artemi Panarin came to the defense of his teammate, Wilson knocked Panarin’s helmet off and dragged him to the ground by his hair, continuing to throw punches. Panarin sustained injuries that will prevent him from playing for the rest of this season.
Wilson is known for letting his temper get the best of him, being involved in multiple suspension-worthy events throughout his tenure in the league. The National Hockey League’s department of player safety normally allocates a maximum of a $5,000 fine for dangerous plays like hits to the head or illegal slashes, which Wilson is evidently no stranger to. According to an article by the New York Post, Wilson has missed seven games this season for a suspension that involved a brutal hit to the head on Brandon Carlo of the Boston Bruins.
Even with an incident of this magnitude, Wilson was slapped with that classic $5,000 fine. As a repeat offender in the league with a plethora of dangerous plays under his belt, this is simply unacceptable. Two dangerous plays in one game, and he is allowed to play out the rest of the game and even the next one. Is anyone else confused?
From my perspective, this seems like a mere slap on the wrist for Wilson. First of all, he is a professional hockey player, who obviously makes a great deal of money under his contract; Wilson nets an average of $5,166,667 per year according to spotrac.com. $5,000 is a tiny fraction of this income, so he is not necessarily learning his lesson.
I have played hockey for 13 years of my life, and it is a very physical sport; of course there will always be punches thrown, because it is merely part of the game, and a part of what makes it so special. However, mostly all players know when to stop; the official comes in the middle of the battling players to break it up.
Tom Wilson does not know where to stop. Although the official made every attempt to split up the brawl, Wilson continued to let his emotions get the best of him, which led to him making a few very poor decisions out on the ice.
Many observers of the league would agree with the idea that $5,000 isn’t enough of a price to pay for the outcome of this event. Artemi Panarin’s season got cut short, yet Wilson gets to continue forth. For such a dangerous play, Wilson should have been suspended for the remainder of the regular season, which would last only three more games until the playoffs begin. Even that amount, for a repeat offense, is relatively low.
The Rangers released an official statement after the game, questioning the fitness of the head of the National Hockey League department of player safety George Parros. The Rangers said, “We view this as a dereliction of duty by NHL head of player safety, George Parros, and believe he is unfit to continue in his current role” (@nyrangers on Twitter). This is one of the first times that an organization directly called out a league executive, and many fans believe that they overstepped their bounds.
On May 6, longtime commissioner of the league, Gary Bettman, issued a statement saying “While we don’t expect our Clubs to agree with every decision rendered by the Department of Player Safety, the extent to which the Rangers expressed their disagreement was unacceptable.” Alongside this message, he fined the Rangers organization $250,000 for their comments, according to an article published by NBC Sports.
In the opening faceoff of their second straight game against each other on May 5, the Rangers and Capitals forward lines broke into a full-fledged brawl, with multiple fights taking place immediately. This was likely a revenge move by the Rangers, who wanted to defend their teammates that were adversely affected by Wilson’s previous stunt.
In the first five minutes of the game, both teams collectively drew 72 penalty minutes. At the end of the game, which resulted in a 4-2 Capitals win, a shocking 141 total penalty minutes were logged, according to an article by Yahoo.
The Rangers, who were eliminated from playoff contention by a narrow margin, continued to target Wilson; right after the large brawl settled down in the opening minutes, Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith dropped the gloves with Wilson himself. Due to the anger he has caused to other teams in the past, it is no secret that he will have a target on his back for a very long time into his career if he keeps up the mantle of an instigator.
Earlier during the day of May 5, Rangers faithfuls were stunned by the news that General Manager Jeff Gorton and President John Davidson were fired. The head of player development and former Rangers player Chris Drury was promoted to the two roles of General Manager and President.
This surprised a great deal of Rangers fans, because it seemed rather unwarranted. Gorton and Davidson managed to rebuild their team fairly quickly after a tough streak of bad seasons. It is unclear whether the decision to let the two executives go was based on the statement they released.
Another shock that came to Rangers fans was the suspension of Pavel Buchnevich on May 6, from a high cross check on May 5. Obviously, Buchnevich was playing frustrated and took his anger out on this play, so he deserves to be suspended; however, Wilson does too. Parros avoided the expected $5,000 fine for Buchnevich’s connection with Anthony Mantha’s head, which raises an interesting question: why is the department of player safety letting Wilson’s malicious play go relatively unpunished, but when Buchnevich makes an arguably less dangerous play, he has to sit out a game?
Former NHL player John Scott, who was known for his “tough guy” persona, has spoken out on this exact question, questioning whether Parros has some kind of bias towards the Capitals, and also scolding Tom Wilson in the process. According to an article by USA Today, Scott said “What on earth is happening with the NHL right now? George Parros completely dropped the ball, he dropped his drawers, he dropped everything.” Scott felt that Parros did his job incorrectly, and that Wilson completely crossed the line. Most NHL fans, just like me, share a similar sentiment to Scott.
Scott also argued that this is setting an unbelievably poor precedent for the future of fighting in professional hockey. He stated that players will continue to recklessly punch, drag and fight if they know they will receive that low bill of $5,000. Scott speaks on this and more in a video recorded for his Twitter, which already has over 600,000 views.
As this story develops, NHL fans continue to be shocked by the decisions the league is making. Rangers fans, Capitals fans, and other onlookers from around the United States and Canada have agreed that Wilson is in the wrong, and the Rangers are acting appropriately to handle the situation.
So that brings me back to my original point, which would be that the league has been handling this incorrectly. As a Rangers fan, I thought that the team defended themselves appropriately, and my current feeling is that the league is blowing this entire event out of proportion. Almost everyone is calling for the suspension of Wilson, or even just some form of stricter punishment, which would have solved this entire situation a long time ago.
What Tom Wilson did was undeniably terrible and the current punishment that he received was extremely minimal for the amount of damage he caused to the Rangers’ organization. Many fans of the Rangers and Capitals alike are disgusted at the league’s handling of this entire debacle, which has exposed a gaping hole in the executive To prevent mishaps like this from happening in the future, the NHL’s player safety department may need to buckle down on their punishments so that out-of-line players can learn from their mistakes.