Tom Wilson hijacked hockey this week — with the NHL’s help

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Tom Wilson hijacked the NHL this week

With only a handful of regular-season games left for each team and the Stanley Cup playoffs right around the corner, there’s plenty of fun stuff to talk about right now. Contending teams are either jockeying for playoff position (will we get that long-awaited Leafs-Habs series in the first round?) or trying to clinch one of the last couple of spots still available. Star players are giving us a show every night. Connor McDavid is putting the finishing touches on a masterpiece of a season that has him on pace for a ludicrous 102 points in 56 games, while Auston Matthews can reach 40 goals in just 49 games if he pots another one tonight.

But instead, the hockey world has spent this entire week obsessing over the NHL’s 98th-ranked scorer.

It all started Monday night when Washington’s Tom Wilson sparked a post-whistle scuffle by punching a Rangers player who was laying on the ice next to the Caps net. Seconds later, the big guy tangled with New York star Artemi Panarin, whipping him down and causing an injury that forced Panarin out of the game and, the Rangers said, out of the playoff-eliminated team’s three remaining games.

With the bad blood boiling and the Caps and Rangers due for a rematch on Wednesday night, the NHL could have easily put the fire out by suspending Wilson for one game. In a vacuum, that may have been a bit harsh given the relatively commonplace (by hockey standards) nature of his actions. But Wilson, who’s 27 years old, has already been suspended five times by the league and committed many more dangerous acts (see for yourself here), earning a reputation as the dirtiest player in the game. Given his repeat-offender status, almost no one would have complained about a one-game ban for this incident.

So, naturally, the NHL elected to not suspend Wilson, fining him $5,000 US instead. This upset a lot of hockey fans and caused the Rangers to momentarily lose their mind. On Tuesday, the team issued a bizarre (and pretty melodramatic) statement calling for NHL discipline chief George Parros to be fired for not suspending Wilson over this “horrifying act of violence” (this cost them a $250,000 fine from the league). Less than 24 hours later, the Rangers fired GM Jeff Gorton and president John Davidson. They made sure to leak that these moves were a response to the team’s disappointing performance this season, not the statement, but the timing was interesting.

Then, last night, with emotions still running hot and Wilson allowed to suit up for the Caps-Rangers rematch, we got a scene that was both stunning and extremely predictable. The second the puck dropped to start the game, all three pairs of opposing forwards who were lined up at centre ice dropped the gloves and fought each other. Shortly after that, New York’s Brendan Smith fought Wilson. A few minutes later, two more fights broke out. Here’s what Washington’s penalty box looked like less than five minutes into the game:

In the midst of all the violence, something beautiful happened in this game. Washington’s T.J. Oshie scored a hat trick in his first appearance since his dad died earlier this week. That could have been the thing everyone was talking about today — just as we could have spent this week marvelling at McDavid and Matthews and all the good things the final stretch of the regular season brings. All it would have taken was a simple, uncontroversial one-game suspension. Did the NHL somehow fail to understand that? Or did it get exactly what it wanted?

Quickly…

The developers of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are donating some to Olympic athletes. The doses will be shipped out this month so that countries can get their entire Olympic teams (athletes, coaches, staff) fully vaccinated with a second dose in time for the Tokyo Games in late July. It’ll be up to those countries’ governments and their national Olympic committees to figure out how to dole out the shots. In some places (Canada, for instance), the idea of vaccinating healthy young athletes at a time when many vulnerable people are still waiting for their jabs remains controversial. Perhaps anticipating some backlash, the Canadian Olympic Committee argued in a statement that “the Olympic Games hold special meaning for the millions of Canadians who will be inspired by the resilience and determination of Canadian athletes this summer in Tokyo. As most provinces begin vaccination of the general population, this announcement will help more Canadians receive vaccinations quicker.” Read more about the vaccine donations and what they mean for the Tokyo Olympics here.

Canada won its fifth game in a row at the women’s curling world championship. Today’s clutch 10-8 win over Denmark vaulted Canada (6-5) ahead of the Danes for the all-important sixth-place spot in the standings. A top-six finish in the round-robin is needed to qualify for the playoffs and to clinch a spot in the 2022 Olympics. Kerri Einarson’s Canadian rink has two games left — at 4 p.m. ET vs. Japan (2-7) and tomorrow morning vs. China (4-6). Denmark (5-5), Germany (5-5) and South Korea (5-6) are lurking right behind Canada in the standings. Read more about today’s results here.

Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold is taking her Olympic fight to court. The 11-time national flyweight champion and two-time Pan Am champ didn’t like the way her first Olympic appearance ended. An illness before her second-round bout at the 2016 Rio Games landed her in the hospital, leading to her elimination at the hands of a Chinese fighter. She figured she’d get another chance at the Tokyo Olympics and had plenty of time to qualify after stepping away from the ring to have a child in 2018. But after the pandemic erased qualifying events, the Olympic field was built using revised rankings based on three events from 2018 and 2019 — when Bujold was on maternity leave. Given that she had an Olympic-calibre ranking before she was pregnant, Bujold asked the International Olympic Committee to grant her a spot in Tokyo. But they refused. Now she’s challenging that decision with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which could be her last hope. Read more about Bujold’s plight in this story by CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux.

And finally…

John Means came painfully close to perfection. If you just took a quick glance at last night’s boxscore, you might think the 28-year-old Orioles lefty had thrown the 24th perfect game in major-league history and the first in nine years. He retired all 27 batters he faced (12 by strikeout), didn’t allow any hits, and didn’t walk anyone. But there was one blemish: in the third inning, Means struck out a Mariner with a diving curveball so nasty that it got away from the Baltimore catcher, allowing the batter to scurry safely to first base on what was scored as a wild pitch. The Orioles quickly erased the runner by catching him trying to steal second, but that doesn’t bring a perfect game back to life. Silver linings for Means: he still pitched a no-hitter (Baltimore’s first by an individual since the great Jim Palmer’s in 1969) and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he can now say he’s the only big-leaguer in history to throw a non-perfect no-hitter with no walks, no hit batters and no errors. Read more about Means’ historic performance here.

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