Toronto – The NHL would like fans to be talking about Connor McDavid’s push for a 100-point season or focusing on Auston Matthews’ bid for 40 goals, but they’re not.
The topic that has the hockey world in a lather right now is the Washington Capitals’ Tom Wilson, a tank of man with a Grim Reaper reputation, tossing around the New York Rangers’ Artemi Panarin — an MVP candidate — like a rag doll.
Just before taking down Panarin, Wilson punched Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head while he lay prone on the ice.
Wilson, a repeat offender who has been suspended five times for violent acts, was fined $5,000. He earns $4.1 million per season.
Panarin will miss the Rangers’ final three games due to injury.
The outrage was instantaneous.
Social media exploded while sports programs replayed the incident on an almost continuous loop.
Anyone even remotely connected to the NHL was providing an opinion.
New York Post columnist Larry Brooks wrote: “NHL must ban agitator for nearly killing Rangers star.”
The Rangers issued a statement that described what occurred as a “horrifying act of violence” while calling for the removal of George Parros, the NHL head of player safety in charge of handing out punishment, for “dereliction of duty.”
Some, however, have viewed it the same way the NHL did, as just another routine incident that was elevated to hysteria because it involved the league’s most notorious figure.
Either way, the altercation has developed into a crossover story that has migrated from sports to news and, in the process, made Wednesday’s Rangers and Capitals rematch one of the most anticipated games this season.
That game began with six players — Washington’s Dowd, Carl Hagelin and Garnet Hathaway, and New York’s Kevin Rooney, Colin Blackwell and Phillip Di Giuseppe — fighting one second after Wednesday’s faceoff.
Wilson stepped on to the ice for his first shift less than a minute into the game and was almost immediately challenged by Brendan Smith, who was assessed a 10-minute instigator penalty following the fight.
“I had no beef with anybody else on their team,” Smith said. “I thought it should have been handled before this game and it wasn’t. I felt it had to be on my shoulders, and I took it.”
Wilson was loudly booed by the several thousand fans in the Garden every time he was on the ice — which wasn’t for long. He played 2 minutes, 36 seconds and accumulated 15 penalty minutes before leaving the game with an upper-body injury.
Two more brawls broke out before Wilson was slashed by Buchnevich with 4:04 left in the period. Wilson and Rooney were then each assessed 10-minute misconducts after appearing to jaw at one another.
For years the NHL has been trying to evolve from its caveman image.
Too much blood had become bad for business and, along with the growing threat of lawsuits over head shots and concussions stemming from brawls, the NHL itself had moved to dial down the violence to an acceptable level while stopping short of eliminating fights.
Now the league is facing the worrying prospect of a re-escalation in the arms race.
The league says there is no place for thuggery but at the same time has signaled it’s willing to look the other way, even in the face of a social media backlash.
Teams, meanwhile, are once again taking matters into their own hands, searching out players who provide more of a menacing presence than goals to act as a deterrent to those who take liberties.
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