EXCLUSIVE: Tom Wilson Goes 1-on-1 About Return, Recovery & Resilience
Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson opens up about his recovery, staying mentally strong and his return from injury.
ARLINGTON, V.A. — In Game 1 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tom Wilson came flying out of the gates for the Washington Capitals against the Florida Panthers. The 28-year-old already had a goal just one minute into the game, and now, he found himself going in for a big hit on Mackenzie Weegar.
He had to slow it down, though, and as he pivoted to avoid the collision, he felt something pop in his left knee. It was an experience he'd — fortunately — never had before, and while he knew the tweak wasn't normal, he didn't know that it was a torn ACL. So when he came back to the bench, Wilson was testing things out, jumping on his knee and also trying to tell himself that he was fine, though he felt that wasn't exactly the case.
"It was one of those things where I knew something was wrong, but I didn't understand the magnitude of the injury," Wilson explained.
Wilson had tried to get back on the ice and skated on his own in an attempt to make his way back for the remainder of the postseason, but it never came to fruition — and it wasn't even close. Ultimately, any kind of comeback attempt was shut down when the Capitals were eliminated in six games, and after the season officially ended, Wilson was scheduled to undergo ACL surgery.
"When that happens, you kind of just take it day by day until you figure out what your rehab's going to be, what the process looks like," Wilson said. "At this point in the journey, I'm still trying to kind of do it the same way."
After a successful procedure, Wilson faced gruelling rehabilitation, which would take nearly eight months before he would see game action again. The recovery process was something the Ontario native had never undergone before. First, he had to get back to walking without crutches and getting used to the knee brace. Then, he had to work to not just get the strength back in his knee but make sure he was also able to maintain his muscle and strength in the remainder of the body while also being able to put pressure back on that left leg.
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Of course, that all had to happen off the ice before he could get back in skates, and even then he had to start out skating on his own in a tracksuit before getting back in full gear and eventually joining his teammates. So to navigate that long road, Wilson turned to positive thinking.
"A big part of it is making sure everything around your knee is strong. While the knee is healing, you try and make sure that muscles and everything take as much pressure and a lot of the work off of the knee," Wilson said. "So you got to make sure the rest of the body is strong. And like I said before, it's 6-8 months for the rest of your body to kind of recover as well. You try and take little wins when something like that happens."
Not only can the road to recovery be a challenging one, but it can be a lonely one, too, for players who are out of the lineup, working out alone in the mornings and skating without their teammates. However, Wilson remained resilient and found that his experience was the opposite.
REBOUND SCOARRRRRRR! pic.twitter.com/vSoKrbMYID
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 3, 2022
The fan favorite received an outpouring of support from the community and organization, while also rehabilitating with other injured players in Carl Hagelin, Connor Brown and Nicklas Backstrom, who made his return on the same day as Wilson following hip resurfacing surgery in June. Wilson also got married over the summer to his longtime girlfriend, Taylor Pischke, and had his wife, family and friends help him through the ups and downs.
"I didn't really have any dark times, per se. I was lucky that there were a lot of people to lean on and a lot of people there for me," Wilson said. "Sometimes when bad things happen, you realize how many people are in your corner, and that was one of the really cool things to see. All the support from the city, the fans and my family and friends. and sometimes you can find silver livings out of kind of tough life experiences. I was pretty fortunate to have such a great support staff, my wife, everyone was just ready to help me and offer a hand."
Not only was Backstrom another positive presence, but the natural leader took Wilson under his wing again and pushed him to give a full effort and get out of his comfort zone. With Backstrom encouraging him, No. 43 said he got a new perspective and felt like he was able to recover like never before.
"Every day I come to the rink, I have to be good," Wilson said. "I have to push myself because I feel like I owe that to him. I feel like I owe that to him as a leader to make myself better, and he just has that demeanor about him. Everyone around him wants to be better."
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Former Washington forward Joel Ward, who was also a mentor to a young Wilson when he was first coming into the NHL, also shared some words of wisdom with Wilson that the power forward held close to his heart during his rehab.
"He once told me there's no bad days in the NHL… and this league, no matter kinda what you're going through, it's kind of our safe space. And it's fun being around the guys and it's the best job in the world," Wilson said. "Whether I was injured or playing or whatever's going on, you try and come to the rink with a positive mindset, and everyone in the organization and teammates were so great that it allowed me to do that and focus on my goal to get back out there.
Now three games into his return, Wilson said he's getting more and more comfortable with each game that goes by. So far, he has averaged 14:36 minutes per game and has racked up 14 hits, six penalty minutes and three shots. He's starting to feel more comfortable every time he steps on the ice but beyond that, he is determined to return to the form he was in last year, which led to a career-high 52 points and a trip to the All-Star Game.
"Still a little bit of rust that I want to kind of get rid of, but I'm feeling better every day," Wilson said, adding, "[And I'm trying to] get better every day and keep working toward the goal of getting back to the player I was."