The National Hockey League (NHL) game between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers on May 3 had major implications for both teams. As the Capitals had already clinched a playoff berth, a win would have pushed them to first place in the highly competitive East Division with just four games remaining in the regular season. The Rangers, on the other hand, needed a win to avoid being eliminated from playoff contention. However, after a scramble in front of the Capitals’ net in the second period that led to a scrum between Capitals forward Tom Wilson and Rangers star winger Artemi Panarin, attention shifted away from the playoff implications of the game, replaced instead by disgust and anger from hockey fans at the NHL’s handling of the altercation.
Wilson is arguably the most polarizing player in the NHL due to his propensity for physical play, which some have characterized as dirty. In recent years, the league has moved away from fighting, which has historically been closely associated with hockey. Now, teams tend to favor quicker, more skilled players instead of a traditional enforcer who clogs up a spot on the fourth line. Despite this trend, Wilson continues to play with physicality at the forefront of his game. However, Wilson is unlike the traditional enforcer archetype — he is able to pair his physicality with offensive production, amassing 0.77 points per game this year, which allows him to influence the game in multiple ways and be a top contributor for a strong Capitals team. That said, he has been criticized throughout his career for his tendency towards cheap-shotting opposing players and has been suspended five times in his career, while incurring fines on two separate occasions, for illegal hits. His most recent suspension came in March of this season after an illegal check to the head of Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo, causing Wilson to miss the Capitals’ next seven games.
The May 3 play in question began with a loose puck in front of the Capitals net, which sparked a fray as Rangers players attempted to slot the rebound home. Nothing about this situation is unusual in a hockey game, until Wilson joined the skirmish and quickly escalated tensions between the teams. Attempting to clear the attacking Rangers from his goal, Wilson took Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich down and delivered multiple punches to the back of his head while Buchnevich was pinned to the ice. Rangers players came to their teammate’s defense and pulled Wilson out of the pile, which triggered a mostly one-sided tussle between Wilson and Rangers superstar forward Artemi Panarin. During the scrap, Wilson ripped Panarin’s helmet off, grabbed him by the hair and body-slammed the much smaller — and at that point defenseless — Panarin to the ice. With Panarin helmetless and prone on the ice, Wilson continued to throw punches until the two linesmen finally broke up the situation, far later than they should have. Panarin subsequently exited the game and has since been ruled out for the Rangers’ remaining three games of the regular season with an injury. Wilson was only given a double minor four-minute penalty for roughing and a 10-minute game misconduct penalty, even though his actions were more than enough to justify an ejection. Panarin was somehow given a roughing minor as well, only his third minor penalty the whole season, even though he was the clear victim of the situation. Wilson had been given a minor roughing penalty earlier in that same period as well for needlessly punching Rangers defenseman Adam Fox.
The game finished in a 6-3 Capitals victory, though the Rangers had been eliminated from playoffs while the game was still in progress after the New Jersey Devils lost to the Boston Bruins. To add insult to injury, Wilson scored the final goal on an empty net in the last minute of the third period.
What is shocking about the situation is that Wilson essentially got off scot-free. Wilson was fined $5,000, which is the maximum allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement for a roughing call, and he did not receive a suspension. The only repercussions Wilson faced were meager in-game penalties that did not influence the outcome of the game given that the Capitals ended up winning. Considering his history, it is astonishing that Wilson’s actions against the Rangers didn’t even warrant a suspension.
In an unprecedented move from an organizational standpoint, the Rangers let their indignation be known in an official statement posted to Twitter that called Wilson’s conduct a “horrifying act of violence” and declared that NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety George Parros is “unfit to continue in his current role.” The Rangers were fined $250,000 by the NHL for their statement and, though sources state that there was no correlation between the two incidents, team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton were fired by team owner James Dolan the very next day, which leads many to believe that the statement came directly from Dolan himself.
What is perplexing about this move is that the Rangers have been steadily rebuilding for a number of years now and have actually been considered by many to be overperforming this season. With a solid core of young talent and a strong group of prospects in the pipeline, the Rangers look primed for success in the near future. Longtime NHL player Chris Drury has been named as the replacement for both the vacated roles in the Rangers’ front office.
The Rangers played the Capitals again just two days after the incident and did little to conceal their indignation about the Wilson altercation. Three fights broke out as soon as the puck dropped and six fights occurred in the first five minutes of the game, the most fights within the first five minutes of a game in NHL history. Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith fought Wilson in his first shift of the game and was somehow given an instigation penalty for the fight — the NHL’s apparent protection of Wilson infuriated fans even further. Even though Wilson is known for bringing physicality to games and carries himself as one of the toughest players in the NHL, it is cowardly to target skilled position players like Panarin, over whom Wilson holds a clear advantage physically. With the NHL purportedly focused on decreasing the prevalence of fighting in professional hockey, it is appalling that Wilson did not face more serious repercussions for his actions. Moving forward, the NHL must affirm its commitment to player safety by adequately punishing such obviously dangerous actions as in the Wilson-Panarin altercation. Though physical play is an inherent part of hockey, there is a fine line between legal checking and fighting and the unnecessary violence Wilson inflicted on a defenseless Panarin.