By Stu Hackel
March 08, 2013
The sight of Marc Staal after he took a shot to the face moved one teammate to pray for him.
Frank Franklin II/AP

If there is a silver lining in the usual NHL playbook on eye injuries, it's limited to the few players who may now decide to wear visors after witnessing yet another frightening accident on the ice, the one that left Marc Staal writhing and bleeding after he was hit in the face by a shot last Tuesday night. Unless something unexpected occurs, that is about the best that we can expect.

The Rangers defenseman's horrific injury prompted the usual reaction of calls for mandatory visors in the NHL. That was followed by the inevitable response from players who maintain that an incident like Staal's makes them consider wearing one, but not to the extent that they're now rushing to attach a protective shield to their helmets.

"When something like this happens to someone close to you, or anyone really, it makes you think about it," Eric Staal, Marc's brother, told Chip Alexander of The Raleigh News & Observer on Wednesday. But neither Eric nor his younger brother, Jordan, who both play for Carolina, are visor-wearers and they didn't put them on when the Hurricanes faced Montreal Thursday night.

Some players won't even think about it. Maple Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek told Bob Mitchell of the Toronto Star, "It doesn't make me think twice. I've just never worn one. I couldn't really give you a reason as to why."

It seems crazy that this scenario gets played out repeatedly. It happened in March 2011 when a puck deflected into Manny Malhotra's eye, an incident that continues to imperil his playing future. It happened seven months later when Chris Pronger was clipped by Mikhail Grabovski's stick, -- and a lot of what I wanted to write in this column I found I'd already said after Pronger's injury, one that may contribute to ending his career.

Each time something like this happens, we hope for another sort of result-- and isn't that the now-popular definition of insanity, that a crazy person does the same thing over and over and expects a different outcome?

Most people think the craziness can be found among the holdouts. There are fewer of them now; the NHLPA's data says about 73 percent of players wear visors, which is pretty healthy growth. It was 69 percent last season, 56 percent in 2008-09, and 34 percent in 2003-04, before the post-lockout "new rules" supercharged the game's pace, forcing more converts to facial protection.

But for many, that steady, evolutionary change is not good enough.

A matter of choice

The league itself wants to implement mandatory facial protection. However, the shrinking numbers of players who take the ice without a visor still prefer to take their chances and they've instructed their union to preserve their freedom to make that decision individually.

Rather astonishingly, even some eye damage victims have no second thoughts on compulsory shields. For example, Bryan Berard, 1995's first overall draft pick and the 1996 Calder Trophy winner. Now retired at 36 and legally blind, Berard was accidentally struck in the right eye by then-Senator Marian Hossa's stick in March 2000. After seven surgeries, he continued his NHL career until 2008 and skated one final season in the KHL, although he was never quite the dynamic player he might have been.

Berard told Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News, "I still believe it should be the players' choice. We step on the ice and you know what injuries are out there. Obviously it's a freak accident, and guys are shooting the puck harder and there are more deflections now. Those things can happen."

Clearly, the NHL's increased speed since 2005 has played a role in the rise of visor use. So has the fact that some form of facial protection is now mandatory for all North American players at every level below the NHL, including minor pro hockey. AHL players have had to wear them since 2006, and shields have long been standard in Europe.

What is bizarre is that some players who have previously worn them suddenly believe they are better off without them once they reach the top level.

It happens with some regularity. Flames captain Jarome Iginla, who came out of junior and joined Calgary in 1996, told Randy Sportak of the Calgary Sun, "I didn't wear one, and you see better without one," although he put it back on in 2000 after a close call because, "it just wasn't worth it to me. Each guy has that decision. I don't find it's a big hindrance. I got used to it and don't think of it. I see a lot of marks and think it's saved me a few times."

Two other Flames -- Mark Giordano and Tim Jackman -- wore visors last season, but for some reason took them off this year. Hurricanes depth forward Tim Wallace wore one when he played for the Canes' AHL Charlotte Checkers farm team this season. He's had an up and down career between the NHL and AHL since 2007 and when he's recalled, he takes the visor off. Chip Alexander of The Raleigh News & Observer asked him why.

"Tough question," Wallace said. "It fits my style of game not to wear one. I'm just kind of a grittier guy and it's easier to get things going that way. And it's easier to see and doesn't fog up."

Blue Jackets winger Jared Boll, who played in Europe during the lockout and wore one, took it off when he returned. "I'm so used to (not wearing one)," Boll told Shawn Mitchell of The Columbus Dispatch. "You can get used to wearing one eventually, but I wouldn't do it."

Boll's teammate Brandon Dubinsky wore one while playing in the ECHL during the lockout and said he adjusted in a couple of days, but he removed it when the NHL season started. Among those who decline the protection, the most common objections are about the restrictions that visors place on vision or losing the sense of where they are on the ice, but Dubinsky's reasoning was unclear, even to him. He told Mitchell that he and others who grew up watching players without visors viewed them as "cool," adding, "My wife, my agent and my parents, everybody always tells me to put one on. I have no reason or explanation for not wearing it. Who knows? You might see me in a visor before you know it."

Similarly, Flames defenseman Jay Bouwmeester told Sportak that he removed his shield in 2002 when he came right out of junior and joined the Panthers, "because I could....There's no good excuse not to wear one. When people say, 'You're stupid not to wear one,' I'm not going to disagree, but there a lot of things in life that make no sense that people still do."

A matter of perspective

But Rod Brind'Amour did have a reason. Carolina's assistant coach, who almost never wore a shield during his 20-year NHL career, told Alexander when he tried one for a few games, he felt like a fan in the stands, "watching a game through the glass."

For professional athletes, feeling disoriented during competition is certainly not conducive to playing at the highest level; feeling comfortable is. That's what is at the core of the holdouts' objections and the position taken by the NHLPA on their behalf.

NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr explained the union's thinking on this (among other subjects) during his interview with Sportsnet's Christine Simpson, which aired on Wednesday night.

Fehr said the players as a group feel obliged to allow each member of the union decide for themselves. "In the end, this is a matter of individual choice and players should be able to make up their own minds...That has been the judgment of the players and it's their judgment to make," Fehr said. "It's not a personal view on my part or the part of anyone else on staff, and athletes have their own view on how they best perform and what the realistic risks are.

"And in my job, and anybody who works for them, we have to respect their views and judgments. It's their contracts and their careers. Doesn't mean we won't encourage them to be reconsidered, doesn't mean we won't talk about it further, doesn't mean it won't come up, either at the competition committee meeting or with the new health and safety committee we have. I certainly expect it to come up at our executive board meetings this summer. But so far, the players' judgment has been that it's a matter of individual choice, even though players need to be educated so that they can make informed choices."

Reading a bit between the lines, Fehr seems to indicate that there might be some wiggle room in the NHLPA's current stance. And that wiggle could be the same approach that settled the matter of making helmets compulsory in 1979: mandating visors for all new players who enter the league, but grandfathering those NHLers who currently don't wear them.

Kevin Westgarth of the Hurricanes, who was very active in the NHLPA during the lockout, told Alexander that visors were discussed during CBA talks on health and safety issues. "I do think it will be mandatory in the near future," he said.

Perhaps the league could also encourage more visor use if it dropped the rule that gives an additional minor penalty to a player who instigates a fight while wearing one. That's a relic of the time when far fewer players wore them and having one on gave a fighter an unfair advantage over his visor-less opponent. Now, many more players wear them and fighters often remove their helmets altogether.

The Canadiens' Brandon Prust reportedly told a Calgary radio station that his role as a fighter on the Habs is a reason why he won't wear one, and the Maple Leafs' Mark Fraser told The New York Times the same. On the other hand, Boll, who has had more fights than anyone in the NHL this season, told Mitchell that changing the rule wouldn't change his view on visors. He'd opt to not wear one under any circumstance.

The Pronger case

Three weeks after his eye injury, Pronger returned to the ice with a visor on, but only played briefly and suffered a concussion on a very routine play along the boards. Some suspected that the mishap was related to his rushing back into the lineup without sufficient recuperation. His concussion symptoms persisted for months and he hasn't played since.

This week, Pronger broke a prolonged silence about his situation. He was rumored to be on the verge of announcing his retirement but, like Berard, is not prepared to abandon his playing career. In this segment, Pronger goes through some of the exercises that he hopes will improve his vision.

"What's happened was I had 30-year-old eyes. I got hit and the doctor told me I had 60-year-old eyes," Pronger told Sportsnet's Dan Murphy.

"I don't have very good peripheral vision. That so-called sixth sense? I used to really have a good one. Now, I couldn't feel anybody comin' around a corner. My kids scare me all the time.

"That used to be what I was known for: knowing where everybody was; having a feel for who was around me. Now I don't have that."

As for his concussion symptoms, Pronger told Murphy, "It's gotten a little bit better. I can leave the house, go do the stuff. If I do too much, I may get a headache. Occasionally, if I start to feel a bit better I do a bit more, and I get nauseous."

After Pronger's March, 2011 injury, I wrote, "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.... 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 responsibility 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."

It's crazy to think that we might see another awful eye injury and no movement to strengthen protections for players. But the fact that the NHL and NHLPA just agreed on realignment provides some hope that a new spirit of problem-solving may perhaps be upon us, one that will include movement toward saving players' eyesight and careers.

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