Change doesn’t come all at once in the National Hockey League, one more proof that hockey is like life. But the game does change, and the acceptance of mandatory visors portends a much larger change – an end to fighting.
Beginning next season, all new players, plus anyone with fewer than 26 games played, will be required to wear a visor. The players themselves have been the impetus for the new rule. They could have gone further and required all players to wear visors – 540 of the game’s 740 players already wear one – but they believe in a gentler form of change known as “grandfathering.”
The game’s fighters will be among the last grandfathers. It is not kosher among fighters to wear a visor. Mark Fraser, a defenceman on the Toronto Maple Leafs who fought nearly 20 times this past season, says he did not wear a visor for that reason. During this season’s playoffs, a hard shot struck him in the face, breaking his orbital bone (just below the eye) and fracturing his skull. Players rely on just such dumb luck to preserve their sight.
But behind the change is not just a concern about eye injuries to Mr. Fraser, Bryan Berard, Chris Pronger, Manny Malhotra, Jordan Smith and Marc Staal. Concern about concussions is driving the change. As Carolina coach Kirk Muller says, “It’s a different generation, a different mindset. It’s about safety now.”
So much has changed since the game’s beginnings, when there was no netting on the nets, just two vertical bars frozen into the ice. But fighting has been a constant. Of course, the world was different in the late 1800s. It was deemed okay to settle a dispute with one’s fists. (Duelling, too, was once in favour.) Perhaps an ancestor of Don Cherry argued that fistfights made society more peaceful, by letting men blow off steam.
We may be too optimistic. Perhaps an enterprising enforcer will invent an ejectable visor. Or fighters will throw off their helmets (at least until someone dies when falling backward on his head). But visors are bound to cover more and more of the face. Players will wonder why they are protecting their eyes and not their jaws. The right to punch the other fellow into oblivion will fade away.
Hockey at all levels is working to reduce or eliminate headshots. It makes no sense that punches to the head are still permitted. The end of fighting won’t come all at once, but gently, when today’s grandfathers have said goodbye to the game.