On Oct. 3, the National Hockey League issued a 20-game suspension to Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist. The incident marks the official beginning of the much-needed era of player safety for the league after an illustrious run of negligence.
Wilson’s suspension is the fifth time that a player has been suspended 20 games or longer. It comes as a huge blow to Wilson, who escaped a large punishment in his previous three suspensions. Despite not getting the hammer laid upon him until this season, he has had multiple encounters with the Department of Player Safety.
Aside from Wilson, the benchmark suspension proves that the NHL is no longer taking chances when it comes to head injuries. The league’s crackdown, however, is well overdue.
The league has been notorious for overlooking head injuries. As recently as September, commissioner Gary Bettman has been intertwined in a lawsuit over head trauma. Multiple former players have stepped forward to go against the league for not taking precautions to ensure the safety of its players. Many of those players, including former Stanley Cup champion forward Daniel Carcillo, have taken to social media to garner support for the movement and raise awareness.
“Had the league of denial made the right call in game 2 with Wilson’s hit to the head on Doumilin, Reese’s jaw would be in tact & he wouldn’t be suffering from a traumatic brain injury,” Carcillo tweeted on May 2. “He is now at risk for early on set #Alzheimers #dementia #parkinsons #tbi #cte @NHLPlayerSafety.”
George Parros, a former NHL enforcer who took over as head of the Department of Player Safety in 2017, has certainly taken steps to rectify these cultural issues. In the beginning of his tenure, Parros focused more on slashing penalties than anything else, but as evident by the Wilson suspension, things have changed.
Parros’ new system of rule is exactly what the league needs. Checking and fighting can remain in the game, but the limits and usage of these tools must be addressed. Even so, fighting has taken a considerable dip over the past three years in the league as teams have began to favor skill over size.
The days of Scott Stevens and Chris Pronger patrolling the bluelines are long gone as they should be. The way the game was played from the dawn of the sport up until recently was simply unsustainable. The true extent of the hits being delivered could not have been known without modern science.
Corrective measures are finally being taken and for good reason. The careers of these players extend much further than the 10, 15 or 20 years that they take the ice. Each has a life after hockey and that is a realization coming to fruition after too much time.
If the NHL wants to continue its rise as a sport, the commitment to suspending players for egregious hits to the head must be continued. Wilson is only the first, large domino in an overarching scheme that leaves the league, the future of the sport and its players in a better spot at the end of the day.
Kevin Kopf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KMKTNF.