NEW YORK - Before a puck has been dropped, a check has been made or a punch has been thrown, Capitals 21-year-old right wing Tom Wilson already has been described in the New York Post as “a predator who preys on defenseless opponents” and “unnecessarily violent.”
In a column written by long-time Post hockey writer Larry Brooks, a reporter I’ve known for more than 20 years, Wilson is painted as nothing more than a 70s-style goon “who seems to play without regard or respect for the opposition and who rarely confronts a foe straight-up and head-on.”
I’m sorry, Larry, but you’re wrong on this one. Like you, I have seen hockey goons and Wilson is not one of them.
Does he play hard? Yes.
Does he drill opponents with hard, menacing body checks? Absolutely.
But his hit on 39-year-old, concussion-prone Islanders defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky in Game 4 of the Capitals-Islanders series was neither predatory nor dirty. And Wilson is willing to drop the proverbial gloves to defend himself.
“They can write whatever they want, it really has no affect on me at all,” Wilson said as the Caps prepare for tonight’s series opener in Madison Square Garden [6:30 p.m. pregame, CSN, 7:30 p.m. puck drop, NBCSN].
“I don’t know what his goal is to write an article like that. He’s coming at me pretty hard, I guess. But at the end of the day, it’s my game. I’m playing hard and I would never want to hurt anyone. That’s never my goal. My goal is just to win the hockey game, get in on the defense and make their lives difficult.”
Wilson stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 210 pounds. Visnovsky is 5-foot-10, 192 pounds. Wilson already was in full stride when Visnovsky went behind his net to retrieve a loose puck. Wilson did not accelerate or launch himself into Visnovsky. He hit him and he hit him hard.
“I mentioned to a couple of [Islanders] coaches in the handshake, I wish Visnovsky all the best,” Wilson said. “I know he’s an older guy. I have so much respect for him. He’s obviously been injury prone, but at the end of the day, he’s playing. He knows how fast the game is. He knows how hard the hits are. It’s the fastest game in the world and probably the hardest hitting game in the world, so those hits are gong to happen.
“Guys who have played the game who are on [TV] panels, they’re not freaking out about it. They’re not calling me a predator. They understand it was a pretty clean body check, just really hard. That’s the game that we love and that’s the game that we play. I never want to go out and injure guys but I’m going to play as hard as I can within the rules and get in on their D.”
Maybe the Post’s story on Wilson was written to draw the officials’ attention toward the second-year forward. Maybe it was meant to incite Rangers fans in what promises to be a series filled with big hits. Wilson, who was taken by the Caps with the 16th overall pick of the 2012 draft, said the negative attention is not going to change the way he plays.
“When you start playing half-effort hockey, that’s when guys will get hurt,” Wilson said. “You just have to play hard between the whistles. From what I’ve heard, people thought it was clean. Obviously, a lot of people in New York didn’t. That’s just passion. They can’t play the game, so they’re going to write whatever they can to try to get at me. They can’t step on the ice and ask me to fight, all those fans and all those writers.
“I defended myself. Anders Lee did a great job [fighting Wilson in Game 5], he came in and defended his teammate. That’s the way it should be. I’ll always defend myself after a hit if they felt I targeted their player. It’s just playing hard and it’s the reason we love hockey.”
As you might expect, Wilson was not the only player in the Capitals’ dressing room defending the hit on Visnovsky or the player who delivered it.
“You never want to have a dirty player on your team, but I don’t see Tom as dirty at all,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said. “I think he plays the game very hard. I think he’s viewed as dirty a little bit because he’s so big and strong that he overpowers a lot of guys.
“The people who know Tom knows he plays hard and he tries to do the right thing on the ice at all times and be an impact player. He’s not a guy we’re worried about taking penalties. We know he’s going to do his job and we’re fortunate to have him.”