In so many respects, professional hockey players are incredibly privileged.
There’s the gaudy pay stubs, calling a game ‘work,’ experiencing the camaraderie found only in smelly dressing rooms and a whole world of ancillary benefits I either can’t or, for the sake of not torturing myself, don’t want to imagine.
But when it comes to the issue of protecting themselves, many NHL players never had a chance.
The vast majority of players in the NHL have reached an age whereby they’re officially referred to as adults and, logic would dictate, are capable of making grown-up decisions.
So, when the inevitable player-protection debate arises following incidents like Richard Zednik’s freak accident, the first argument many reach for is: “They’re big boys, let them decide how to protect themselves.”
True, they are big boys.
But many of those big boys, despite their age, sometimes act like seven-year-old kids who feel they’re too cool for a bicycle helmet and need to be told by their parents it’s a non-negotiable part of the package.
The reason for that? When you’re reared on images of bloody-faced warriors “gettin’ it done” despite any ailment that occurs along the way, it’s hard not to get sucked into that culture.
When you grow up being told you have to wear adequate equipment, then flip on your TV only to see players who don’t and hockey personalities who question the manhood of those who do, it’s easy to see why so many players peel off the visor the moment it stops being mandatory.
Heck, my dad still plays old-timer hockey with men who refuse to accept one of the best things about your golden years is being able to see your grandchildren.
It has little to do with intelligence and almost everything to do with environment. If a kid grows up with Calgary Flames fans as parents, chances are pretty good he or she is going to join the sea of red, too.
That’s why it’s so crucial to have examples like Mike Keane out there. The 16-year NHL vet and three-time Cup champ isn’t just tough, he’s prairie tough.
As such, the Winnipeg native didn’t feel the need to sport a visor until late in his NHL career.
Now in his third season with the American League’s Manitoba Moose, the 40-year-old Keane continues to wear a visor – not just because his league mandates it – but because he recognizes the painfully obvious dangers of not wearing one after eluding a lifetime’s worth of flying pucks, sticks and elbows.
The AHL made visors a must-have following an incident that occurred in February of 2006. Portland Pirates defenseman Jordan Smith, a second round pick of Anaheim in 2004, took a shot in the eye and was forced to forgo his dream of playing professional hockey.
His love for hockey kept him in the game and he now plays Canadian university hockey for the Thunder Bay-based Lakehead Thunderwolves.
Smith, who did not wear a visor at the time of the injury, had this to say to the Winnipeg Sun a few months later when the AHL made face protection mandatory:
"The bottom line is it's a good idea. If it minimizes some serious injuries, who knows if it saves one guy, then it's worth it. It's definitely a good idea. It's common sense. And it's a very smart thing to do."
Too often that viewpoint doesn’t find players until after a life-altering event.
I’m not somebody who believes players should be rolled in bubble wrap and bound in Kevlar suits before being sent out on the ice.
If the sole purpose of life were to avoid injury at all costs, sports wouldn’t exist to begin with. There’s an accepted level of risk in any sport (lest we forget race car drivers die every so often) and fans, media and the players themselves have obviously come to an agreement that they’re more than OK with that.
But don’t use the free will theory to circumvent the common sense fact simple measures can be taken to temper the risk without altering the fabric of the game.
Players should have the right to choose how they equip themselves? In theory, yes. In practice, many of them don’t acquire the perspective required to make that call until it’s too late.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears every second Friday.
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