PITTSBURGH – His nickname is “Playoff” Colin Wilson.
He doesn’t like it.
It’s one of the most double-edged monikers in the NHL: Both an acknowledgement of his undeniable impact in the postseason, and an acknowledgement that his impact in the regular season is much less noteworthy.
“I think to an extent, it does do me a disservice,” Wilson said back in March. “I know anytime I do anything — I score a goal, make a play for an assist — somebody goes, ‘Oh, ‘Playoff Wilson’ showed up.’ I feel like I’ve been doing it pretty consistently throughout the year.”
He has 22 points in his last 32 playoff games, including two goals and two assists in 12 games this postseason. But the most notable thing about “Playoff Colin Wilson” in these playoffs has been his absence from them: Wilson missed the first round against the Chicago Blackhawks with a lower body injury, returned for win against the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks, but hasn’t seen the ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.
Which meant watching, instead of playing. Which meant Wilson was dying a slow death from the press box.
“Watching the games has been hard. Much harder than playing. You’re a little bit cooler and calmer on the bench,” he said.
The signs point to his return to the ice coming soon. He took line rushes with Frederick Gaudreau at practice on Thursday ahead of Game 5, with Harry Zolnierczyk and P.A. Parenteau rotating on the opposite wing. Parenteau said he’s not in for Game 5, so logic would dictate that Wilson is.
“If I am able to play at any point in this series, it would be a big milestone in my career,” said Wilson.
It would be Wilson’s first Stanley Cup Final game. It’s something his father, former NHL center Carey Wilson, never had the honor of playing in during his 10-year NHL career.
Wilson’s grandfather, Jerry Wilson, was in the NHL in the 1950s. His father, Carey, played from 1983-93.
Wilson admits that being part of an NHL legacy has always made life interesting.
“As a kid, I was getting such good advice from my family that I knew [playing in the NHL] was attainable, someday. I don’t know if I was a little bit arrogant as a kid or what,” he said.
Wilson was born in Greenwich, Conn., when he father was playing for the New York Rangers, although he said he grew up in Winnipeg, where his father was born. Carey Wilson helped prep him for his eventual hockey career by giving him a head start
“He always talked to me about positional play, and it’s all about winning the little battles. And no coach ever said anything about winning the little battles until I hit the U.S. National Team,” said Wilson back in 2009.
He entered the Team USA development program at 16 years old, and ended up playing two years with Boston University before making the professional leap, having been drafted No. 7 overall by the Predators in 2008.
“When I was drafted, people on social media saying I was only there because of my dad,” he said.
So Colin Wilson has worked hard during his career to exceed the career of Carey Wilson. “I wanted to hit some milestones that my dad has, and try to surpass him. I’m more competitive with him,” he said.
Wilson actually grew up in Winnipeg, playing on outdoor rinks, including one his father created in their backyard.
“My dad had his own homemade Zamboni. You hook up the hose to piping, there’s just a cloth behind it. It’s just something that you pull, to keep the ice good,” said Wilson.
Their rink was great. But not the best in Winnipeg.
“Toews had the better homemade rink growing up,” conceded Wilson.
Wilson is a year younger than Jonathan Toews, but grew up playing against the Chicago Blackhawks star and his brother in Manitoba. They’re friends off the ice, which helps when Wilson’s team destroyed Toews’s team in a first-round sweep in April.
“Yeah, I don’t think we lost a friendship over that,” said Wilson. “We’ve played three times in the playoffs, and we’re happy to be on the better side of things for once.”
Besides, their friendship goes well beyond the topics of hockey.
Toews recently made waves with an overtly political Instagram post following President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Climate Accord. “Do you believe in climate change?” wrote Toews. “Whether you’re super pumped that we are putting ‘Americans first’ or you are absolutely outraged at the idea that we are taking yet another step backwards in dealing with a major global problem, the only way to solve this argument is to try and set your own agenda aside and see how this affects everybody.”
Wilson and Toews found common ground on these issues, and others.
“Me and Jon don’t necessarily talk politics. More about clean energy, and things like that. Issues. We do speak on issues,” he said. “We share a pretty specific philosophy on environmental issues. We take trips together.”
Politics are usually avoided in NHL locker rooms, as team unity trumps discourse. But Wilson is intellectually curious about the events of the day – in fact, he was noticed reading “On Tyranny” in the Predators’ locker room, a recent book by Timothy Snyder that deals with “totalitarianism of the twentieth century” around the world.
Reading it between periods of a playoff game, no less.
“That was just because I got into a book during the day, and I figured between periods I could know it out. I do read a lot, try to learn some things. But that’s not a regular occurrence. I don’t want anyone to think I didn’t care about the game. Everybody’s on their phone during the intermission, so I figured I’d learn something,” he said.
What did he learn?
“I learned some things,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t want to get into politics too much here, but I learned a lot.”
Wilson said he’s also learned some things from Toews. “We talk about the mental side of the game, the mental side of life. We bounce ideas off of each other,” he said.
That includes the right mental approach to something like winning the Stanley Cup, which Toews has done three times in his career. The Blackhawks star has, in the past, talked about his struggles to balance his singular focus on winning with life in general. Wilson’s had a similar struggle.
“As an athlete, you get to this level because you have a bit of a tick. A bit of an O.C.D. thing. You have to get to the next level, you have to win. So when you get to this level, when you play 82 games a year, you have to get some sense of clarity or else you’re going to drive yourself crazy,” he said.
Wilson had to deal with the mental strain of this postseason. Of watching games and not being able to compete in them. Of having an injury without clarity. “It’s a bit of a mental game. It’s not an injury where they can tell you, ‘oh, you’re done for a month,’” he said.
So to find the right mental state, he’s relied on the lessons he’s learned coming from a hockey family, and the lessons he’s still learning from someone like Jonathan Toews, as they’ve texted and talked during the Predators’ playoff run.
“I’ve spoken to him a few times. He just says ‘good luck.’ We just kinda talk. He’s certainly rooting for me.,” Wilson said, before pausing.
“Although I don’t know … maybe he’s texting Crosby the same thing.”
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