Gary Bettman chose to uphold Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension for a hit he delivered to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist.
Bettman’s ruling was 31 pages long and went into great detail on the NHLPA’s defense of Wilson, why he felt the hit was illegal and all aspects of Wilson’s appeal heard on Oct. 18.
Here are the 10 most important takeaways from the ruling.
The NHLPA argued there was no violation at all
The first part of the NHLPA’s extensive defense of Wilson was to question whether Wilson violated Rule 48, the rule on illegal checks to the head, at all.
“The NHLPA’s primary argument on this appeal is that Mr. Parros’ determination that Mr. Wilson violated Playing Rule 48 was not supported by clear and convincing evidence,” Bettman wrote, “And that because there was no violation of Rule 48, there should have been no supplementary discipline of any kind, nor suspension of any duration.”
That’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Needless to say, Bettman didn’t buy it.
“Simply watching the video footage of the incident, including a frame-by-frame review, clearly and convincingly establishes that Mr. Sundqvist’s head was the main point of contact … The video shows that as Mr. Wilson delivered the check on Mr. Sundqvist, Mr. Wilson’s left shoulder made primary, direct and substantial contact with Mr. Sundqvist’s head.”
The Department of Player Safety was “unanimous” in its belief that Sundqvist’s head was the point of contact
Some Caps fans have argued Wilson did not even hit Sundqvist in the head. The NHLPA also referenced the debatable nature of some of Wilson’s previous suspensions. There was no such debate in this instance, however.
According to Bettman, Parros testified that “the DPS personnel who reviewed the incident were unanimous in concluding that the head was the main point of contact – not the shoulder or any other portion of Sundqvist’s body.”
When everyone whose job it is to review these videos and assess discipline agree that the head was the main point of contact, it’s hard to argue that the head was not the main point of contact.
Wilson admitted he hit Sundqvist in the head
If you’re one of the few fans left clinging to the belief that Wilson never made contact to Sundqvist’s head, then you’re not watching the right video. But, if you still refuse to believe it…well, Wilson kinda sorta admitted during the appeal that he did.
“Even Mr. Wilson admitted that, in delivering the check on Mr. Sundqvist, he made contact with Mr. Sundqvist’s head,” the ruling said. “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.”
It’s pretty hard to argue at this point that the hit didn’t warrant any kind of suspension.
Just in case their first argument didn’t work, the NHLPA also argued 20 games was excessive and suggested 8 games instead
The NHLPA was never going to convince Bettman that there was no violation at all. Really their best bet was to argue against the length of suspension.
Bettman’s ruling states, “The NHLPA’s secondary argument, made in the alternative (if its argument that there was no violation of Rule 48 on the play in question is rejected), is that the twenty game suspension assessed to Mr. Wilson was excessive and a suspension of that length is not supported by clear and convincing evidence.”
The ruling further goes on to say the NHLPA argued that Wilson’s suspension history was not “unprecedented” as the DPS claimed, his first suspension should not count as a suspension since it only kept him out of preseason games, the DPS grossly inflated the weight of Wilson’s three-game suspension in the playoffs and that Wilson was not a repeat offender since all but one of his suspensions were “highly debated.”
With all that being the case, if the hit warranted a suspension at all, the NHLPA suggested eight games would be appropriate.
The NHLPA gave examples of other player who had been suspended three times, but the issue is not how many times they had been suspended, but the fact that Wilson had been suspended four times in such a short amount of time. Second, Bettman would essentially undermine the vast majority of suspensions if he accepted the argument that they don’t count because they were “highly debated.” That’s a tough argument to make.
Bettman points out in a footnote how dumb he finds one of the NHLPA’s arguments
As part of its case, the NHLPA used a video of Jonathan Toews avoiding a hit from Wilson on a similar backchecking play to illustrate the responsibility of the offensive player to avoid a hit.
Bettman not only rejected this, but added in a footnote explaining that he essentially thought it was a dumb argument.
“I found the NHLPA’s reliance on the Wilson/Toews play to be particularly curious here,” Bettman wrote, “Because while it is clear that Mr. Toews saw Mr. Wilson approaching and chose to make efforts to avoid the oncoming check, it was equally clear that Mr. Wilson also ‘pulled up’ on the play, and reduced his speed to minimize the impact of any potential collision with Mr. Toews. Mr. Wilson had the same option to ‘minimize’ or avoid contact here and he chose not to do so.”
It doesn’t sound like Brian MacLellan’s testimony helped Wilson
Rule 48 specifically states that a hit to the head is illegal if “such contact to the head was avoidable.” Wilson argued that he wanted to deliver a body check to Sundqvist, but his position made it impossible to do that without hitting the head. That argument was undermined by Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan’s testimony.
Bettman wrote, “I also find that Mr. Wilson’s testimony that he could not have done anything differently to avoid checking Mr. Sundqvist’s head to be entirely inconsistent with, and undermined by, the testimony of Brian MacLellan, his own team’s General Manager, who flatly acknowledged that Mr. Wilson ‘had no options’ to avoid checking Mr. Sundqvist’s head.”
MacLellan was obviously there in support of his player and would not have intentionally said anything that would have hurt Wilson’s case. There is definitely some context missing here on exactly what MacLellan said and why, but clearly it did not help Wilson.
The fact that the hit came in the preseason definitely mattered
As part of his ruling, Bettman took note of the situation of the game, namely that the hit occurred in the preseason.
“The game itself was the last Preseason Game for both teams – a game in which the outcome would not count towards or have any effect on either Club’s standings heading into the Regular Season,” Bettman wrote. “Although the illegal check occurred on what could otherwise be considered a ‘hockey play,’ the reckless nature of the check and the level of force applied in the context of the last Preseason Game before the start of the Regular Season further reflects what I conclude to be particularly poor judgement by Mr. Wilson.”
How much this actually mattered is pure speculation. Bettman thought it mattered enough to mention it in his ruling, but based on everything else that went against Wilson, it seems unlikely that if the hit occurred in the regular season or the playoffs it would have affected Bettman’s decision.
Wilson met with Parros twice, including in August about a month before hitting Sundqvist
Wilson has spoken to the media in the past about the efforts he makes to speak with officials in the offseason to get a better idea on what the DPS is looking for when it reviews a hit.
According to the ruling, Wilson met with Parros in Calgary in 2017 after two incidents in the 2017 preseason led to Wilson getting suspended two preseason games and the first four games of the regular season. After a controversial hit to Jonathan Marchessault in the Stanley Cup Final, Parros called Wilson warning him to “make better decisions in the timing and selection of his checks.”
Parros met with Wilson again in August 2018 for a one-on-one meeting in Toronto “to provide feedback on his style of play, and to advise him on 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.”
While these instances were meant to help Wilson, it hurt him in the ruling as Bettman took these instances as evidence that the message was not sinking in.
“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,’” Bettman wrote, “And it reinforces my firm conviction that the lengthy suspension issued by the DPS is this case was necessary and appropriate and supported by clear and convincing evidence.”
Here’s how the DPS originally came up with 20 games
There are no rules dictating the specific punishment the DPS must give for head hits by repeat offenders. With no real idea of how the DPS arrived at 20 games, it can look like an arbitrary number, but Bettman detailed how that number was ultimately reached.
According to the ruling, “The evidence in the record suggests that Mr. Parros applied a ‘three times’ multiplier to Mr. Wilson’s most recent suspension which he valued at six Regular Season Games (‘two times’ three Playoff Games) to arrive at an eighteen game base suspension – to which he then added two additional games on account of Mr. Sundqvist’s injury – for a total of twenty.”
Wilson’s last suspension was three games in the playoffs for a hit to Zach Aston-Reese. Parros took that suspension and multiplied it by two to account for the weight of a playoff game. Because Wilson was a repeat offender and because of the frequency of his suspensions, he multiplied that number by three for 18 games. The extra two were because of the injury suffered by Sundqvist.
Bettman pulls no punches in his conclusion
Just in case you weren’t sure how Bettman felt about the Wilson hit, he made it pretty clear in his conclusion. Bettman was very direct and very strong in his rebuke of Wilson as he wrote, “Mr. Wilson’s recent play has threatened the safety and well-being of opposing Players on too many occasions, despite prior discipline being assessed and despite the considerable efforts of DPS to counsel Mr. Wilson on how to play within the Rules.”
Bettman further wrote, “the supplementary discipline previously assessed to Mr. Wilson prior to this incident has clearly been ineffective in deterring his dangerously reckless play. Accordingly, I find that Mr. Parros’ decision to impose a significant suspension of longer duration than in prior incidents in this case was readily supported by the evidence and might, in fact, be the only effective way to deter Mr. Wilson’s future ‘bad conduct.’ I hope that this decision will serve as an appropriate ‘wake-up call’ to Mr. Wilson, causing him to reevaluate and make positive changes to his game.”
MORE TOM WILSON NEWS: