November 16, 2011
Plymouth Whalers right wing Tom Wilson is well-qualified to talk about the big man's burden.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Torontonian profiles classic power winger who seems to be in short supply in the Ontario Hockey League nowadays. Wilson is a good confluence of skill — the Whalers would not have him paired up with NHL first-rounder J.T. Miller if he didn't — and size. He's also well-aware that he has to tailor his bashing style of play to the new reality of junior hockey, where contact with the head can mean
"For me as a player, I sort of have to become smarter about when I hit people," says the 17-year-old Wilson, who's projected as a first- or second-round pick. "When they're not in vulnerable positions and stuff like that. It's kind of unfortunate that the game has seen these types of hits come into play. I think one big thing is that the players need to start protecting themselves to player. Obviously it comes into play that guy making the hit has to be more careful, but the guy receiving the hit need to be more aware of their surroundings, don't cut behind the net with their head down like with the [Tom] Kühnhackl and [Ryan] Murphy play."
Is one remedy perhaps having minor hockey coaches tutor their taller players to crouch a little lower, so reduce the height disparity that often plays into head shots?
"It always help if you bend your knees and lead with your shoulder," Wilson says. "It's always going to tough for bigger guys skating with littler guys. Their heads are at big guys' shoulder levels. But it's just having that respect for the guy on the other side. For the love of the game, don't try to hurt them. A big hit gets the guys going, but try to keep it clean."
So far this season, Wilson has four goals and 13 points in 15 games for Plymouth while skating with Miller, the New York Rangers first-rounder, and hard-nosed wing Mitchell Heard. The Whalers do not hesitate to liken him to some of their alumni who have gone on to NHL success.
"He's a James Neal type in my opinion," Whalers coach-GM Mike Vellucci says. "That would be the cloest. He's anywhere between James Neal and Jared Boll. He fights, he fights more than Nealer did but he can definitely score. He can forecheck. And one of the best things he does is body checking. He's a phenomenal body checker."
On Tuesday, TSN's Craig Button placed Wilson 27th on his ranking for the NHL draft. He's also listed 19th by HockeyProspect.com. One would never know he lost the second half of his rookie OHL season after tearing a tendon in his left wrist while playing for Team Ontario in last season's world under-17 hockey challenge.
"We were telling everybody that we really missed him," Vellucci says. "If we could have had him and [Anaheim Ducks first-rounder Rickard] Rakell for the playoffs, we probably could have gone a little farther. Willy's a big part of our team. The couple of games he did miss this year, we didn't fare so well. He's big a contributor."
After rehabbing his surgically repaired wrist, Wilson took a major step by making Canada's summer under-18 team and helping it win the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament in August.
"That transition was really big for my game. Playing on that level with that calibre of players really helped me get ready for the Whalers. I was unsure going into the camp, but I kept telling myself to work hard and everything would fall into place. [Kitchener Rangers coach-GM] Steve Spott [who coached the under-18 team] is a really great coach and he just kept encouraging me."
Having missed out on the post-season last year, when Plymouth won a tough seven-game series against the Gabriel Landeskog-led Kitchener Rangers before being swept by eventual OHL champion Owen Sound in four fairly tough games, Wilson is eager for a playoff run this season. Playing in that atmosphere would be a great chance to show his worth.
"There's something to be said about the Whaler way," Wilson says. "We pride ourselves on playing hard-nosed hockey. I seem to be fitting in well and we're bringing in guys who can play that same way, crash and bang, like [fellow 17-year-old] Cody Payne. It seems like it's going to be a really fun year."
The 5 Questions
1. What can you say about the injury you suffered last season that cost you the last four months of the season and how your dealt with it?
"I tore a subsheath in the big tendon that runs along your wrist so I needed some pretty major surgery on that. So that was unfortunate. I worked out hard in the summer to get ready for this year and hopefully I can stay injury-free this year.
" ... It sucks only being able to watch the games and not being able to help your team on the ice. It gives you some free time to concentrate on school. I tried to treat the layoff I had like it was my summer. Even though my wrist was hurt I could work on my lower body. I could work on my academics, but I was there for the team when they needed me."
2. Apart from the obvious — build strength, improve foot speed — what area of your game do you need to improve the most by the time you are ready to turn pro?
"It's not only just foot speed or hand speed, but doing things at full speed is so important when you get to the next level. Everyone is so fast. You can have speed or fast hands, but learning how to put that all together when you are flying down the wing is important. I'm working on my puck protection and accelerating out of the zone and creating chances around the net and using my size as I get more experience. That's probably the biggest thing, putting it all together at full speed."
3. Whom in the NHL do you watch and think, "I need to start playing like he does" or "I see things in his game I can work into mine?"
"[Anaheim Ducks centre] Ryan Getzlaf is one guy I've always looked up to, he's a big power forward that's got great skill. He seems able to protect the puck well in the offensive zone and create chances for his linemates. Not to mention going to the Olympics, he wasn't total healthy, but he battled through to help Canada win the gold medal. He's definitely an idol that I try to model myself after."
4. Outside of family, who has had the most impact on you in hockey?
"My grandpa [Jake Avery] is a huge fan. He used to always come to games and give me advice. He's one person. There has been a ton of coaches who have helped over the years and a lot of people giving me advice. [Former NHLer] Steve Thomas is one person who has helped me immensely. He's a family friend who's obviously been through the ranks of the NHL and has had a kid [New York Rangers prospect Christian Thomas] come up through the OHL. He's been really influential in my hockey career."
5. Favourite TV show or movie?
"Favourite movie is probably Miracle or Rocky. I love the sports movies and the underdog stories. Those are definitely two classics."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: Rena Laverty).