Marc Staal was the latest player to be struck in the eye by a puck. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
I imagine that if you asked anyone involved in Tuesday's game between the Flyers and Rangers what they thought about Marc Staal catching a slapshot to the face, you'd get a pretty uniform answer: “You never want to see that happen to a guy.”
Less likely? “Too bad, but he shoulda been wearing a visor.”
Though players will consider the possibility of mandatory visors in the NHL, it's rare for one of them to actually come out and say it's a necessity. Visors are still thought of as a personal choice and players will still claim they feel uncomfortable. Even though I can't think of a single current player who didn't have to wear one in junior or college before they got here.
If it's a “slippery slope” situation, wherein players are worried that visors become the beginning of a larger mandate on safety that eventually turns them into Michelin Men, I think we can put those concerns to rest.
Not to get all Freakonomics here, but there is already a movement afoot at the college level to pull back on the amount of equipment required on the ice. Currently, all NCAA players must wear full cages or shields on their helmets. And while it goes without saying that eye injuries are nearly impossible to incur in college hockey, the stewards of the game (working in conjunction with the United States League) saw another problem arise in recent years: catastrophic injuries caused by blindside checks and hits from behind. Simply put, the full cages and shields limit peripheral vision, meaning opponents screaming in to do you harm may be closer than they appear.
A perfect example of this phenomenon occurred at the world juniors in Russia this year. Canada's Nathan MacKinnon was wearing a full shield at the tourney because, as per IIHF regulations, any player under 18 years of age had to wear such protection. Back in the Quebec League with Halifax, MacKinnon only wears a visor. At one point in the tournament, MacKinnon violently collided with a teammate at mid-ice, because the player was in his blind spot. Had this been a Mooseheads game, I don't think the collision would have happened.
Of course, there's no use arguing whether an eye injury is worse than a neck injury or a concussion; they're all bad and all can have life-altering consequences. The USHL/NCAA initiative would look at three-quarter length visors, aka 'The Dany Heatley.' This model offers more protection than the standard visor, but still allows for spatial awareness.
As another example of moderation being the key, look at the concern over the past decade or so about the size of protective gear, specifically shoulder pads and elbow pads. Pundits have noted that players have become more reckless thanks to larger equipment, because the fear of injury from launching yourself at an opponent (and perhaps missing) is minimized by all that Kevlar and other space-age materials. How would the game change if players went back to the way Chris Chelios played, with hardly any shoulder pads at all? What if there was at least some middle ground?
Ironically, a lot of these issues have arisen because both the players and the general public are smarter than ever. A lifetime ago, guys were smoking cigarettes between periods or swinging sticks at each other's helmetless heads before they dropped the gloves. Players are realizing they need their brains intact once their hockey careers are over and it's a difficult time for them because a lot of these notions of protection bump up against the traditions of the game.
But with a measured response from both sides, this doesn't have to be a flashpoint issue much longer.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.