Zach Aston-Reese, in meeting with reporters last week before the Penguins scattered for the offseason, joked about looking like a chipmunk and scarfing a lot of ice cream. He was less comfortable talking about the incident that led to his broken jaw and the surgery to implant plates and screws.
The same day, Tom Wilson, the Washington Capitals tough-guy-who-can-play, spoke for the first time about being the perpetrator who caused Aston-Reese’s injuries, which also included a concussion. Wilson seemed much more willing to talk about the hit in Game 3 of the teams’ second-round playoff series. Based on Isabelle Khurshudyan’s reporting in the Washington Post, Wilson made it clear he thought his hit on Aston-Reese was within the rules and that his resulting three-game suspension was unwarranted.
Their divergent reactions seem remarkably telling after several years of the NHL (and other sports leagues) seeking to address head hits, brain injuries, and their long-term effects. The culture within the league apparently keeps stalling progress.
Aston-Reese is 23, a winger who in 2017-18 showed considerable promise. He is college educated (Northeastern) but as an undrafted prospect, a rookie and someone who has a physical aspect to his game, he might very well feel reluctant to step up as any sort of spokesman about head hits.
Wilson is 24, a first-round draft pick in 2012 who is already approaching 400 games in the NHL and whose three-game suspension was partly based on him being a repeat offender.
Who spoke more passionately about the hit, the fallout and the implications? Wilson, by a long shot.
Aston-Reese’s first comment on the hit was meek: “I thought it was a bit high. At the end of the day, I guess it’s just part of the game.” He then, when asked, said Wilson had not reached out to him.
Pressed, Aston-Reese said he saw Wilson approaching and braced for a shoulder-on-shoulder hit.
“I kind of picked my head up for it, braced my shoulders for it and then he just kind of came up high on me,” he said.
Given the opportunity to assess the length of the suspension, Aston-Reese again backed off.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The NHL did what they thought was appropriate.”
After the hit, which came in front of the visiting bench at PPG Paints Arena, when Aston-Reese was able to get up from the ice, he angrily threw one of his gloves into the Capitals bench.
“It was kind of just heat of the moment. I thought I was … they were staying stuff,” he said. “I don’t remember what it was or who. It was kind of a heat-of-the-moment thing.”
TV cameras then caught Wilson on the bench, smiling or laughing – something some of the Penguins, notably Kris Letang found highly offensive. But Aston-Reese let Wilson off the hook.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “It could have been (a reaction to) a million different things and not my injury.”
Wilson Defends His Hit
In Washington, Wilson disputed the NHL’s determination that despite being a shoulder-on-shoulder hit, Wilson drove then drove upward into Aston-Reese’s head.
Here was his long-winded defense.
“I couldn’t see where they came up with the ruling on that one,” Wilson said, according to the Post. “I’m just a little bit confused. From what I’ve heard, if you’re picking the head, the head’s snapping independent from the body. In that body check, our bodies are met, his head snaps down with his body, goes back in the same motion as his body, which indicates a full body hit. It means I didn’t pick his head. If I picked his head, it would snap differently from the body and that would be the primary point of contact. You know what, it’s tough. Obviously, I’m a repeat offender. I’ve got to be adapting. I’ve got to be changing kind of with the times here. …
“I’ve got to make sure that I’m finishing checks low, through the core. That’s what I heard from the video. Talking to (Washington forward Devante Smith-Pelly and defenseman Brooks Orpik), how many guys finish through the core? You’re looking for that shoulder. It’s a body check.”
While there was a vocal faction of reporters and fans condemning Wilson’s hit and what it means in today’s concussion-conscious climate, according to Wilson, there also was a faction within the NHL supporting him.
“I had players from around the league, opponents, former players, former teammates, GMs, people of different leagues reaching out to me,” he told the Post. “When you get that kind of backing, when the players have each other’s backs, it’s different. You know it’s a bad hit if the guys on your team are going, ‘C’mon man, maybe that wasn’t the best play.’ When you’re getting texts from opponents from around the league and former players — guys that watch the game for a living, guys that played the game hard for a long time — saying, ‘Hey keep playing your game, we think that’s a clean hit,’ it’s tough.”
Wilson did note that he heard some backlash – from Penguins fans, who he said gave him “absolute abuse. … Some pretty vocal fan base for sure. I got some mail this morning. I’m going to have to screen the packages that come in with my name on them.”
What, If Anything, Happens Next?
Aston-Reese and Wilson had some agreement on what should happen, at least in terms of how players need to approach heavy hits.
“It’s like everything in life – there’s good, there’s bad,” Aston-Reese said. “The NHL stepped in and handed out a suspension. The high hits like they’re trying to get rid of, I think moving forward guys just need to be a little bit more aware of and have more control of their body when going in to throw big hits like that.
“I’m just kind of moving past all those emotions, and focusing on recovering and having a good summer and focusing on next season.”
Wilson admitted to needing some correction to the physical side of his game.
“I’m a bigger guy. There’s more force being driven through my hits, so I have to be more careful,” he said. “It’s just what it is. I think if the majority of our team makes that hit, it’s a big collision and maybe there’s no broken jaw on the play. I’ve got to be more careful for sure, and I respect everyone at the (player safety) department. I think they’re doing a good job to make the game a safer place. I’ve just got to work with them and make sure that I can’t put my team down. I can’t be out of the lineup.
“I want to play with energy, I want to play the same way, I want to make sure that I’m finishing checks. … I think anyone that’s watched hockey can admit that the game’s changing. Those big collisions, the league’s making us aware that they don’t want those anymore.”
Whether the NHL is making progress is a matter of opinion, and everyone is entitled to theirs. Whether the league should move toward a zero tolerance on all head shots likewise is open to discussion.
However, it seems clear from this incident and the reaction to it that even within the ranks, and after years of talk and education, there is no meaningful consensus.