Capitals' Tom Wilson still feels the love in Toronto

Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson hasn’t worn out his welcome in Toronto despite starring versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

The morning after Tom Wilson countered Mike Babcock with the decisive moment in Game 1 between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs last spring, wherein the 23-year-old wrecker needled hockey fans in his hometown with the bullet he unleashed in overtime, another member of the Wilson clan was working over locals.

Wilson’s grandfather, also a proud member of the very prestigious, very old-school, very dress-code-strict Toronto Golf Club, strutted into the clubhouse wearing his No. 43 Capitals jersey personalized with “Grampi” to meet up with his pals for an early-season round.

You didn’t have to tell these proud supporters of the Maple Leafs: the ability to agitate is something passed along in the Wilson family.

“That was definitely a violation,” Wilson acknowledged. “He caught a lot of flak (for that). But he’s a member for life there, so if anyone could pull it off it was him.”

Having shared a laugh at the expense of his friends, and surely boasting about the accomplishments of his kin (as grandfathers do), “Grampi” would indeed comply with the dress code before heading to the first tee.

But while he was done stirring the pot, Tom was just getting started.

Wilson remained a headache for the Maple Leafs throughout arguably the most fascinating opening-round matchup from last year’s playoffs. Making life miserable with thunderous body blows and other forms of acceptable and effective malevolence, Wilson can also be credited for rescuing the Capitals from a potential 3-1 deficit (and likely a series loss) with two goals in Game 4 at Air Canada Centre.

That performance, Wilson’s first multi-goal night of his career, gave him three goals in the first four games in a postseason series against the franchise he grew up treasuring. This was a player limited to seven goals in the regular season.

The Capitals prevailed in six games, with Wilson and his teammates able to celebrate the victory in Toronto’s visitors locker room. It marked the end of a whirlwind week-and-a-half which represented territory completely unfamiliar to the 23-year-old, a sudden heel’s relationship with his hometown seeming to fray. But Wilson thrived in that role of sudden public enemy No. 1, learning quickly to break the hearts of those he suffered along with as a kid living in the rinks of North Toronto.

But however strange it may have been, and as much as he wanted to remain in his bubble until the work was done, Wilson can now admit that it was maybe the most fun he and his family have ever had in the game.

“There are milestones all along the way but as far as my career goes, that was definitely something that we’ll all (be able to) look back on and smile. It was fun. There was lots of coverage, the family and friends. Just kinda the perfect storm; everything came together at once,” Wilson said.

“I hadn’t really drawn much blood against the Leafs in my first four years. All of the sudden you’re playing in a playoff series. The Leafs have a ton of anticipation (around) their team, you’re coming back as a hometown kid, you score a couple goals — and it kinda blows up.

“Everyone really enjoyed it.”

While the grandfather’s clubhouse violation was easily swept under the rug, the breakout versus the Maple Leafs meant summer wasn’t going to be the same for Wilson, who still lives, trains and golfs around the neighbourhood he grew up in.

But when he returned this summer, he wasn’t reduced to persona non grata. If anything, his starring role against the Maple Leafs actually helped reinforce his ties to the community that shaped him as a person and an athlete.

Wilson says he has heard it all summer from passionate members of Leafs nation and is routinely asked about his breakout: “But why did you have to do it against the Leafs?” But as the conversations continue with members at the club, or with fans on the street, or with kids looking to follow in his footsteps, Wilson is reminded of the pride in North Toronto and support he’s received throughout his hockey journey.

“They are proud, loyal fans,” he said. “But having someone that grew up next door to you make it to the NHL is also pretty cool. These tight-knit communities in North Toronto, they are excited to see people go on and play in the NHL.

“It’s been humbling to come home and have them be so excited about your career,” he added. “They can feel like they are part of the experience. They were part of the experience somewhere along the way.”

For the local hockey fans without ties to Toronto Golf Club or the rinks in North Toronto that Wilson built his foundation on, and perhaps who are still feeling miffed, they can take solace in that more chapters on the budding rivalry between the Maple Leafs and Capitals will soon be written.

And if last spring was any indication, Wilson will resume his starring role.

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