Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews are part of the majority of players who already wear eye protection. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
The debate about mandatory visors at the NHL level may finally, thankfully, be nearing an end. But it should have been over and done with long ago. That protecting players’ eyesight – and by extension, their careers – has somehow been twisted into a civil rights issue shows just how insular and (pardon the pun) short-sighted the professional hockey world can be.
For more than a decade, people inside and outside hockey’s top league have urged players to consider the consequences of catastrophic eye injuries, but machismo and the libertarian ideal of free choice always won out over common sense and risk management. Even players like Bryan Berard, who had been traumatized and whose career never was the same after Marian Hossa’s stick clipped him in Ottawa in 2000, would argue for individual choice over mandated or grandfathered visors. But as the injuries have piled up – and the financial investments in players have grown and grown – it has become more and more difficult to justify removing the eye protection every current NHLer spent his formative years wearing.
And at long last, some of the most prominent NHL stars are speaking out against that cult of choice. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews has said he wears a visor “because there is no good reason not to wear one,” and Canucks counterpart Henrik Sedin recently told the Vancouver Province, “If guys aren’t (wearing visors), somebody has to make the choice for them.”
How refreshing to hear that type of honesty. And when you really think about all the equipment/appearance issues NHLers willingly accept without any pretense toward self-determination, the visor issue becomes even more ridiculous. For instance, the New Jersey Devils have long had a rule banning facial hair for any player on the roster. No complaints from players or the NHL Players’ Association there. Similarly, the New York Rangers mandate that all their players wear extra padding in their gloves to better protect them when they’re blocking shots. Again, no complaints from the players or PA.
If those impositions on players’ personal choice are all well and good, why is eyesight different? If anything, vision is more important to earning a living as an athlete. Yet tradition and the notion of having an advantage over visor-wearing players continues to win out at the NHL level. It is preposterous and an affront to owners and fans who invest their time and money in these players. If you want to go without eye protection in a pickup hockey game, that’s the time for personal choice. Players willingly accept that hockey is a business in all other elements of the game and it’s high time they did the same on this issue.
This isn’t to say that, when the NHLPA puts mandatory visors to a vote among its membership, we’ll suddenly have 100 percent acceptance of eye protection. The last time the union voted on the issue in 2009, only 30 percent were in favor of making them a non-optional part of their equipment. However, as THN colleague Ken Campbell confirmed with NHL vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell, the league technically does not have to get the go-ahead from the PA to make visors mandatory.
That means, on a basic level, the league doesn’t care enough about the players to force them to wear visors. They forced players to miss half a year to fall in line with their financial vision for the future, but actual vision? Apparently, that’s best left to the cattle to decide amongst themselves.
Well, cattle, don’t be surprised if you’re branded as fools if you turn your back on science and mathematical probability and reject visors yet again. With every Marc Staal, Manny Malhotra, Berard and Henry Boucha that falls to the wayside and has their career flash before their eye(s), the appeal of individual choice is underscored as utterly empty.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.