By Stu Hackel
Player safety may be the theme of this NHL season -- or, at least, an important emphasis in the first couple of weeks -- but the sight of a visorless Chris Pronger rushing off the ice bent forward with his hand clutched to his eye reminds us that in this area, the NHL and NHLPA have not been effective forces for needed change.
During Monday night's Maple Leafs-Flyers game in Philadelphia, Pronger caught a stick in the right eye from Mikhail Grabovski and let out what Frank Seravalli in The Philadelphia Daily News called "a blood curdling scream that could be heard, loud and clear, throughout the Wells Fargo Center. For that moment, as the Flyers' captain skated right to the bench and fell over in the hallway on the way to the locker room, time stood still. Stomachs turned over in fans and players alike."
While the first reports had Pronger not in danger of losing his sight, that's not entirely accurate. The severity of this injury won't be fully known for another few days. Pronger is on strict bed rest with a cut on his right eyelid, which caused swelling to the area.
"Now, the biggest fear is that blood could build up behind his eye in the form of a clot, which could cause permanent vision damage," Seravalli reported.
For those who missed it, here's the incident, and it's not pleasant to watch.
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said the team will no longer permit Pronger to play without wearing a visor. That's advice more NHLers should heed.
There are lots of reasons why the league and the PA have not moved to some sort of regulation on making visors mandatory, and not all of them are sensible. The least sensible arguments come from the same sort of backwards thinking that fought stronger rules against deliberate contact to players' heads. That is, there's still the lingering perception that wearing a visor shows that a player isn't tough, isn't brave enough to compete without protecting his eyes from errant sticks and pucks.
It's hard to reconcile that sort of thinking with what happened to Bryan Berard, the first overall pick by the Senators in 1995 and Calder Trophy-winner with the Islanders in 1997, whose eye injury while playing for the Maple Leafs in 2000 curtailed his career. He endured at least seven eye operations to restore his vision to an acceptable level so he could resume playing -- and in fact, he did (even returning a huge insurance settlement so he could legally be free to play). Berard demonstrated a love for the game that many have but few would employ to that extent. He then bounced around hockey for a half-dozen years, amassing great admiration for his courage and dedication.
But Berard never became the player he might have or won the plaudits his talent might have brought him or earned the money he could have. It's very hard to believe that he wouldn't trade the old perception of him as a brave bare-eyed hockey player for what might have been a Hall of Fame career and to avoid all those surgeries while having perfect vision for his entire life.
"This notion and nonsense that if you wear a shield you're a chicken and you're not tough, that's nonsense," SI's and NBC's Pierre McGuire said Tuesday morning on Ottawa' Team 1200 "Three Guys on the Radio" program (audio). "Raymond Bourque was darn tough enough. Joe Sakic was plenty tough. Peter Forsberg was unbelievably tough. Don't tell me Sidney Crosby's not tough. Don't tell me Jarome Iginla's not tough. Don't tell me Anze Kopitar's not tough. All those guys wear shields. All of them."
Another argument comes from players who insist that wearing a visor will inhibit their talents. This is how they learned to play the game, they say, and they fear that adding a shield to their equipment might adversely effect their performance. There may be some legitimacy to that point as players are creatures of habit and routine (well, aren't we all?) and can be troubled by the prospect of altering what has always worked for them. Colby Armstrong of the Maple Leafs said after the eye injury he suffered last season that he just couldn't see with a visor. But all the players McGuire mentioned, and many more, began their careers without visors. Switching to eye protection did not diminish their abilities or their play. They made the adjustment and just might have prolonged their careers in the process.
That's the sort of discussion you expect from veteran players because, increasingly, younger ones who have been wearing visors through youth hockey, junior and/or collegiate hockey are sticking with them. In fact, co-host Steve Warne of the Team 1200's "TGOR" show cited The Hockey News stats from last season that revealed 65 percent of NHL players under 30 wear a visor while only 45 percent who are 30 and older wear one. Warne wondered if the NHL was hoping the natural progression of events would render passing some sort of rule unnecessary. But McGuire says that based on his conversations with league decision makers, they doubted things would play out that way.
The notion of individual preference still informs the way hockey looks at visors. But that same philosophy was transcended in 1979 when the NHL passed its first rule mandating helmets for all players, the only exceptions being to those who had signed their first pro contracts prior to June 1, 1979 and signed a waiver, thus grandfathering veterans who wanted to remain bareheaded. The league still wasn't universally helmeted until Craig MacTavish, the last grandfathered player, retired in 1997, quite a long time after the rule passed.
When we look back to how helmets became mandatory in the NHL, we see a very similar pattern. Very few players wore them full-time in the Original Six era. (I can recall Red Kelley and J.C. Tremblay later in his careers; Charlie Burns for the Bruins, because he had suffered a serious head injury, and Red Bereneson, who came from a collegiate background, but perhaps there were a few more.)
After Bill Masterton died from his head injury in 1968, there were calls to make helmets mandatory and a number of players -- especially his Minnesota North Stars teammates -- donned them. Still, there were detractors who claimed that those who wore them weren't tough enough, and helmets were blamed for an increase in other sorts of injuries and violence in the game, the argument being that it gave players a false sense of safety and protection.
The number remained small, although after suffering a serious concussion in the early 1970's, Stan Mikita -- one of the game's top players and a pretty tough customer himself -- designed a more protective helmet that he wore for the rest of his career and that won more adherents. In addition, North Americans noticed the great Soviet teams who played against NHL competition beginning in 1972 all wore helmets. By the end of the decade, a lot of players put lids on and along with the influx of more collegiate and European players into the top leagues in the game -- the WHA as well as the NHL -- more than half of all players wore helmets; some estimates put the figure as high as 70 percent.
But, really, the transition was relatively painless. Yes, many believed that stick fouls increased as a result of helmets becoming mandatory, claiming that players were safer when they didn't wear them because everyone knew to keep their sticks down lest they injure another bareheaded player. There may be some truth to that, but anyone who recalls the Original Six also remembers wild stick-swinging fights and occasional clubbings, like the one in Dec. 1953, when Bernie Geoffrion chopped Ron Murphy or, in 1969, when Wayne Maki crashed the skull of Ted Green. And, more commonly, every time there was a gathering of pushing, shoving players at a stoppage, the first thing we saw was all the sticks come up to be waved menacingly around bareheaded players. So the idea that helmets brought sticks higher than before doesn't square with how things really were.
The real lesson here is that even a growing number of tragic and near-tragic incidents can't seem to motivate the NHL to act on this issue. This debate rose again last season when Vancouver's Manny Malhotra was victimized in March, and Pronger's injury should make it fresh again. Enough players have suffered eye damage over the decades that you'd think this would have ceased being a problem long ago, especially because equipment exists to prevent it. But this benign approach to eye injuries joined with the notion of individual responsiblity and the romance of the sport's inherent danger is as old as the game itself. Like so many other things in hockey, the inertia of habit prevents progress and that is foolish.
What the helmet rule provides is a framework for a rule on visors that everyone should be able to live with. As was done in 1979, the NHL and the Players Association could agree that visors be made mandatory, and allow players who signed their first contract prior to a certain date be grandfathered if they wish to not wear them.
This is hardly the first time that the grandfathering idea has been proposed. Why something like this hasn't yet happened is a mystery. But there's nothing mysterious about protecting the eyesight of NHLers who not only want to continue their careers but have their full vision after their careers end.