Those in the New York Rangers organization didn’t mince words when discussing the fine the NHL handed out to Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson after a dangerous incident during the teams’ game on May 3, 2021.
Wilson was fined $5,000 for “roughing” Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich, stemming from a moment in the second period where Wilson punched Buchnevich in the back of the head while the latter was facedown on the ice.
The announcement of the fine, deemed by NHL Player Safety to be “the maximum allowable under the CBA,” didn’t include any details about Wilson’s attack on Rangers forward Artemi Panarin, which included Wilson bringing Panarin to the ice twice and delivering punches.
Video from the incident appeared to show Wilson pulling Panarin down to the ice by his hair before a near-face-first landing, throwing punches after the fact.
Wilson received a double minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct, wound up returning to the game, and scored his 13th goal of the season in the third period of the Capitals’ 6-3 win.
The controversial moment certainly wasn’t the first of Wilson’s tenure in the league, as he was suspended for seven games earlier in 2021 after sending Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo to the hospital. Ahead of the 2018-2019 season, he was suspended 14 games for an illegal hit on St. Louis Blues center Oskar Sundqvist.
In a span of 105 games, he was suspended four different times.
So, with such a prominent history, fans instantly took to social media following the incident to voice their displeasures with Wilson, wondering why the Capitals forward was even allowed to return to the game after the scrum.
The Capitals didn’t do themselves any favors on social media either, posting (and later deleting) a tweet saying “atCapitals chooses: Violence.”
But, as crazy as NHL Twitter got in the immediate aftermath of the scrum, things escalated quickly the following day.
The Rangers confirmed that Panarin would be shut down for the remaining few games of the regular season, and NHL Player Safety released the news about Wilson’s punishment.
No news about suspension. Just a quick statement with a $5,000 fine.
Naturally, the news was a hot topic during the Rangers’ media availability on May 4, highlighted by Rangers forward Ryan Strome’s response to the situation.
“I think it’s a joke, to be honest with you,” Strome said. “I know it’s not my responsibility to make decisions, but I just can’t believe that. I think it sends a bad message, in my opinion. I think everyone pretty much agrees with that. I just think that the league missed one here big time.”
“It’s unfortunate, our best player is out for the rest of the year,” Strome continued. “It’s just an unfortunate incident that had nothing to do with the play, or the game of hockey. I think that’s kind of where the big issue is.”
Rangers head coach David Quinn didn’t hold back with his comments, saying that he felt Wilson should have been suspended for his actions.
“To me, anybody in hockey, certainly in our organization, is very disappointed,” Quinn said, according to the New York Post’s Mollie Walker. “Certainly thought it warranted a suspension, which is really disappointing.”
“A line was crossed,” Quinn continued. “[Panarin] didn’t have his helmet on, vulnerable, he got hurt. You know, to me, there was an awful lot to suspend him.”
The franchise itself even put out a statement on Twitter, saying the “Rangers are extremely disappointed that Capitals forward Tom Wilson was not suspended for his horrifying act of violence.”
“Wilson is a repeat offender with a long history of these type of acts and we find it shocking that the NHL and their Department of Player Safety failed to take the appropriate action and suspend him indefinitely,” the team wrote.
“Wilson’s dangerous and reckless actions caused an injury to Artemi Panarin that will prevent him from playing again this season,” the team continued. “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.”
Meanwhile, others following the league shared similar sentiments, and a conversation began around the potential butterfly effects around the NHL’s decision.
With the $5,000 fine comes the speculation about what would warrant a suspension, considering how much damage Wilson created in such a short time against the Rangers.
Former NHL player John Scott, known for his physicality on the ice, called the punishment a “joke of a fine” in a video on Twitter, and shamed the NHL for the lackluster fine.
“Listen, I love this kind of hockey, I think we all do,” Scott said. “But what Tom did, there’s no excuse for that. It’s insane to me that he only got a $5,000 fine.”
Perhaps the most important part of Scott’s comments, however, came when the former All-Star Game captain looked ahead to the league’s potential future.
“What this means, it’s fair game, baby, in any scrum,” Scott said. “If you go into a scrum anywhere on the ice and you see a star player, I’m throwing sucker punches. I’m grabbing this guy, I’m twisting ankles. I’m doing whatever I can, because the worst thing that’s going to happen to me is a $5,000 [fine] because I don’t see anyone doing more than what Tom Wilson did to Panarin.”
By not opting for a suspension, or even a potential ban, the league set a dangerous precedent that is going to make it incredibly difficult to protect players in the future.
Any player that gets punished in the future now has this video evidence to look back on, showing the league that they believe Wilson’s behavior is okay enough to not take him off the ice for an extended period of time.
Star players will be walking on eggshells and worrying for their wellbeing when enforcers are on the ice, and in-game scrums are going to get that much worse in heated situations.
It was a poor decision by the NHL, and it’s unfortunately ironic that NHL Player Safety sided with a man who has proven time after time that he doesn’t care about the safety of his opponents.