The streaks of blood that had covered Tom Wilson's hands -- some his own and some shed by his latest challenger -- were washed away days ago, but as the Washington Capitals forward splayed out the fingers of his right hand, he pointed out the scarring and bruising over his knuckles, a couple shades darker than the rest of his skin. A thin bandage covered his pinkie, the only visible damage from his latest bout.
"I can't be a watch model," Wilson joked.
Wilson's hands are evidence of the toll fighting can have on the body, of the risk of injury every time he sheds his gloves and literally exposes one of his most important assets. Wilson has fought six times this season, and three times the opponent has been dropped to the ground with Wilson still standing over him.
"You never like to see a guy drop because that can easily be you," Wilson said. "It could be the other way around."
It's rare to get through a fight totally unscathed. Forward Jakub Vrana still has a cut at the top of his nose from his bout with Tampa Bay's Yanni Gourde, Vrana's first fight in the NHL, two weeks ago. Defenseman Brooks Orpik fought Lightning center Anthony Cirelli on Saturday night, and he sported a black eye for Washington's team photo shoot on Wednesday. Wilson and Tampa Bay defenseman Erik Cernak, a 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound Slovak who's fittingly nicknamed "Drago" in reference to the "Rocky IV" antagonist, had been eyeing each other during the teams' first two meetings before finally agreeing to fisticuffs in the third game.
Cernak lost a front tooth, which he revealed on social media before later deleting the post. "I actually saw him after the game, which is how I knew it was the tooth," Wilson said. But as Wilson scanned his blood-stained hands in the penalty box immediately after the fight Saturday night, he questioned if it was worth it, especially with the postseason coming up.
"There's really nothing like it when you have that high and then after the game, you come down kind of and your body just feels completely spent," Wilson said. "This time of year, that's probably a stupid fight for me to take. There's really no point except for maybe sending a little bit of a message. It does take a toll for sure. Your hands are sore for a couple weeks there. You go in there, you try to defend yourself and you hope you're in one piece after."
Defending teammates with his fists was part of Wilson's job description his first two years in the league, when he played on a fourth line. But fighting has become far less frequent in hockey. According to hockeyfights.com, a site that tracks on-ice bouts, there were 0.30 fights per game during the 2016-17 season, which declined to 0.22 fights per game last year and is down even more to 0.19 this season. Meanwhile, Wilson's role with the Capitals has transformed to skating on a top line opposite captain Alex Ovechkin. To that end, his greatest value is on the ice rather than in the penalty box for five minutes or out of the lineup entirely for a freak injury. After tallying 14 fights during his rookie 2013-14 campaign and then 12 the next year, he's tried to be more selective.
Sometimes, he asks for a fight to defend a teammate, and sometimes he's asked to fight to answer for a hit he made. A fight can be used as a way to jolt the team and potentially jolt momentum. But especially with Wilson's hands creating a career-high 22 goals with 18 assists in 61 games this season, pounding them into bone or another player's helmet and visor can be regretful.
"If it's a fight that lasts a little bit and punches are being thrown and stuff, your neck, everything, gets pretty sore," Wilson said. "I got on the plane [after game in Tampa Bay] and everyone else is kind of buzzing around, and I'm like, I've got to go to sleep. You're just tired, you're spent. ... The next game even, when you go to shoot or pass, your hands are sore. That's definitely a thing: you've got to be smart about when you fight, especially if you're playing lots of minutes and you need to make those plays and stuff."
Wilson's fights have been decisive this season, though that's not something he'll boast about. After Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford said Wilson "couldn't run quick enough to get away" from hulking defenseman Jamie Oleksiak in the playoffs last season, Wilson answered with a knockout punch on Oleksiak in December, giving the defenseman a concussion. Wilson objected to a high hit by Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole on Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov, and that brawl broke Cole's orbital bone.
While some players devote part of their offseason regimen to training for fights with mixed martial arts programs, Wilson enjoys boxing as a workout -- he's even invested in the Bash Boxing gym in Arlington, Va., -- but he said it doesn't really prepare him for bouts in hockey games, which he said is more like "a street fight." The gloves don't get to stay on, and Wilson has admitted to breaking various parts of his hands in the past. Even when his hands are relatively intact, there's still damage.
"For me, it's kind of normal," he said. "You just patch the hands up, deal with it and go out and play your game."
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