In the wake of the vicious slapshot Marc Staal took to the face, Aaron Powers asks whether the NHL should mandate visors.
In August 1979, then-NHL President John Ziegler decreed that protective helmets would be mandatory in the League. This mandate came with a grandfather clause that let veterans, such as Craig MacTavish—the last helmetless player in the game—decide for themselves whether they would wear a helmet, but, from that point forward, all new players were required to wear one.
Now the NHL faces another decision regarding cranial protection. With the recent injury to New York Rangers’ defenseman Marc Staal, the League should be contemplating whether visors join helmets in that mandatory category. (Note: The linked video of Staal’s injury is somewhat graphic).
There are arguments on both sides of the issue. Many feel the choice should be left up to the player to attach a visor to his helmet. With injuries such as Staal’s, it will be interesting to see if more players choose to go with them. The NHL Player’s Association reports that nearly 73 percent of players currently wear them, an increase over 2011-12. Staal and his brothers, Eric and Jordan of the Carolina Hurricanes, however, are among the 27 percent that doesn’t. Why? Why does 27 percent of the NHL choose not to wear visors?
In American collegiate hockey, players are required to wear a full ‘face cage.’ College coaches have argued that this contributes to a ‘gladiator effect,’ where players feel more invincible on the ice and less aware of high sticks and flying pucks. There’s even been a push to do away with the cages in favor of visors. As the linked article points out, some players opt for no visor, or ‘shield,’ once they reach the NHL.
Speaking of ‘gladiators,’ many NHL enforcers view non-visor wearing opponents as willing combatants for fighting. This delves into the even-deeper issue of the place and necessity of fighting in the sport, which I won’t touch on here. Only that if a player’s face is exposed without having to wrench his helmet off of his head, it’s easier to land a punch without getting a fistful of plexi. Also, visor-wearing players are often “off-limits” for enforcers and goons, since many of them are star forwards and goal-scoring snipers, not ice pugilists.
It’s understandable that not wearing a visor would give a player better vision, both forward and peripheral, when he’s on the ice. Having to clean off ice spray or sweat fog while on the bench would seem to be a hassle. Also, playing without a visor most likely means improved depth perception—as a player takes a puck on his stick and then quickly looks up the ice as the play develops. But is it worth the cost of taking a slapshot or high stick to the eye?
NHL veteran Manny Malhotra of the Vancouver Canucks won’t see the ice again this season due to an eye injury he suffered nearly two years ago, just before the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Malhotra took to wearing a visor after his injury, but even so, his GM felt he wasn’t playing his best this season and designated him to the Injured Reserve list.
Another veteran, Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers, will most likely never play again after taking a vicious high stick to the specs—a high stick that left him screaming on the ice. (The link to that video can be found in CBS’ ironically-named ‘Eye on Hockey’ article). What’s truly frightening about Pronger’s comments is that he confessed to losing 30 years of vision with one swipe of a stick. The Philly captain also donned a visor following his injury, but, coupled with a concussion, it basically ended his playing days.
So why should the NHL make visors mandatory? Some may say that players such as Malhotra and Pronger are in the twilights of their careers, and these injuries have simply expedited their retirement. But what about Staal, a sixth year player who plays for a legitimate Cup-contender in the Rangers? It’s been stated that he’ll make a full recovery, but what will the physical and possible mental cost be? The Rangers are known to be an outstanding shot-blocking team, with defensemen such as Staal leading the way. Will he now be as willing to place himself in front of a shooting opponent?
With the debate surrounding head trauma and CTE ever at the forefront of contact sports, visors can very possibly play a pivotal role in reducing these injuries. Wearing a visor has become less about being timid and more about protecting one’s precious sight. So if it’s a grandfather clause or a mandatory statement, the League brass have a major decision to make regarding their players and their vision for the future.
Photo: Associated Press/Frank Franklin II