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Capitals’ Tom Wilson Details Recovery & Plan To Return, Overcoming ‘Dark Times’

Tom Wilson shares more on his road back to the Washington Capitals and overcoming “dark times” to return from a torn ACL.



ARLINGTON, V.A. — It was just one minute into the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs when Tom Wilson felt his knee tweak and pop as he turned away from a hit on Mackenzie Weegar. At that moment, Wilson knew something was wrong, but it wasn't clear exactly what. He went back to the bench and was jumping up and down and trying to test out his knee, but he was in pain and ultimately missing that stability. Then, he heard the words that would keep him off the ice long term: torn ACL.

Wilson knew he would be in for a lengthy recovery, as this was the first time in his still-young career that he has suffered any kind of injury like this one. And at the time, it wasn't easy to process for the 28-year-old, who was hitting his stride.

"The magnitude of the injury at the time, I was like, 'It's the end of the world,'" Wilson revealed. "You hear ACL as an athlete, and you're like, 'This is really not good.' So it was tough, but I tried to just focus on the positives."

Wilson was coming off a career year that saw him dish 24 goals, 28 assists and 52 points while playing on the first line and earning a trip to the 2022 NHL All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas. In an effort to get back and help his team in the first round, Wilson tried to do everything in his power to return, even skating on the torn ligament. Ultimately, he wouldn't be able to return, and in May, he had to undergo surgery. 

"The toughest part is not being out there. That's the fun part of the job: going out, playing in front of your fans, playing in front of your hometown, winning hockey games and stuff like that. That's the bonus part, and then the rest of it is kind of the behind-the-scenes where you may not see as much of the day-in, day-out grind and the late nights… it's, no secret, a hard brand of hockey and at the end of last year, I had a great season and then I busted my knee, and it was going to be 6-8 months.

"I didn't focus so much on the dark times," he added. "And having a great support system was a huge part of just being able to focus on the positives and try and push myself through the challenge of having a major injury."

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The Ontario native admitted that the road to recovery was far from "easy street." After conditioning and working to get the strength back in his knee, Wilson then had to get back to skating and working on his own before joining the team for practices.

It can be a lonely process, as Wilson pointed out, but he got a lot of support from recovering Capitals, mostly Nicklas Backstrom, who is on a similar timeline and is also close to returning following offseason hip resurfacing surgery. They have also been working with some of the other injured Capitals, including Carl Hagelin and Connor Brown while getting help from strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish and head athletic trainer Jason Serbus.

"We've always been close, and he's always been a mentor and a leader for me, but we've definitely spent a lot of time together… every day I come to the rink, I have to be good, I have to push myself because I feel like I owe that to him," Wilson said of Backstrom, adding, "Between him, Hags, Mark Nemish, Brownie here and there, it's been a fun little group. And not to say we were having fun, but it can be pretty dark times when you're by yourself working out every single day for four or five to eight months. And to have a little crew where we could just hang out and feel like we're still part of a time was really good."

Wilson is still wearing a knee brace, and due to the mid-season return, he will be keeping it on as a precautionary measure rather than risking things by taking it on and off. He also said he is at the point where he's feeling good in contact battles and that he's practicing with no limits. Still, he wants to be 100 percent before taking the ice, which appears likely to be in the next couple of games.

"Obviously you need some time at [the battle drill stage]. You're not just going to feel good one practice and then jump into an NHL game… Once I feel really, really good, we'll be good to go," Wilson said, adding, "I've still got some time here. I've got to make sure I get back, I've got to play the right way and I've got to do the right things and perform," Wilson added. "All of this doesn't really matter unless I come back and play well, so I'm excited to do it. I'm excited to get back out there and enjoy the team."

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As Wilson prepares to come back, he also pointed out that there was less pressure for him to return with the team being able to turn things around, as a stellar December saved their season after the team's lackluster start to the campaign. Taking that into consideration, he noted that the team has allowed him the full time he needs to get back up to speed, and that has helped immensely in the recovery process.

"The team has been amazing with me. 'How am I feeling?' It wasn't so much about what was going on in the standings. If that was the case, you probably would've seen me — if they were pushing me and forcing me back — it would've been like, 'Alright,' a month ago, 'Let's do this.' But I'm very thankful it's not always that way. You take for granted across the league how injuries are treated and how situations you see, you obviously hear about the horror stories and stuff. Between the Caps and my team back home in Toronto and the surgeons and everyone has been so great and allowing me to feel good about my return.

"… Maybe I could've been back possibly a month ago, but I wouldn't have been the player I wanted to be; I wouldn't have been the player that I was last year," Wilson revealed. "This whole process has been designed with our support team and our medical staff and surgeon and everything to make sure that when I'm back, I'm the player I want to be."

Taking that into account, Wilson is eager to make the same impact he did last season as a top producer and goal-scorer, as well as a top-6 player who can also play the physical style and two-way game he's known for.

"My expectation is that I have to be where I was before. I mean, that's the only acceptable outcome," Wilson said. "I want to be the player that I was before, so this whole process, I've had that in mind and that's been my goal… there's going to be a couple of games to get my feet under me. But just come back and do whatever I can to chip in and help the team keep moving forward and push towards the playoffs."