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(Jonathan Hayward)
(Jonathan Hayward)

Should visors be mandatory in the NHL? Add to ...

Of late, much of the safety discussion around the NHL has focused on concussions and brain injuries - for a lot of good reasons. But Manny Malhotra's terrible eye injury - suffered last week, which will keep the Vancouver Canucks' centre out for the balance of the season and playoffs - raises an old question again: Should visor use be mandatory?

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More and more, the NHL players association is stepping up its crusade against injuries in the sport, but on visors, they've always taken a different tack and argued that it should be a matter of personal choice. Why? Because internally, when they've surveyed their membership about the matter, they've discovered that's what their membership largely wants.

Some players simply believe they cannot function properly on the ice, if they wear a visor. Remember Colby Armstrong, back in January, on the Toronto Maple Leafs' swing through California? He was wearing those Roy Orbison glasses to protect the eye he injured in Atlanta. When Armstrong was cleared to play, he tried it with a visor for a period and then took it off, complaining he couldn't see properly.

That, ultimately, is the conundrum for the players. The NHL game is so fast; and the players need to be so aware of what's happening around them, so if they haven't worn a visor for a while - or at all - it can feel funny and awkward and disorienting. And the last thing an NHL player needs is to be disoriented on the ice. It takes time to adjust and the best way to adjust is to wear one in practice until it becomes second nature, just a part of the equipment. Generally, the players that need eye protection the most - those trying to play soon after an injury like Armstrong - don't have the time or the patience to adapt.

Having said all of that, the visor issue really invites an easy fix.

All the league and the players association needs to do is agree to dig into their collective past and use the same approach they did when helmet use became mandatory: Grandfather it in.

It would mean, for any player already in the NHL, visor use would be optional for the rest of their careers. For any player entering the league starting in say October, 2011, it would become mandatory. Eventually - and it might take a full generation of players for 100 per cent compliance - everybody would be wearing a visor - and around 2030, somebody would be the answer to a trivia question in the same way Craig MacTavish is today (as the last player to play helmetless in the NHL).

Fact is, everybody playing hockey now grew up wearing a full cage throughout their formative years. And if visor use was mandatory, then there wouldn't be an issue or a stigma attached that there seems to be now.

Jarome Iginla had a couple of close calls with eye injuries early in his career; and after wavering a little bit about what to do, finally decided he would wear one for good.

As soon as he made the decision - and the commitment to persevere with the visor - it became second nature to him in fairly short order. The majority of the NHL's high-end players wear them anyway; if they can, everybody else can too - and should.

The risks are otherwise too great. Just ask Manny Malhotra.

Update: Globe hockey writer David Shoalts chimes in on the issue:

Eric Duhatschek makes some fine points, as usual, in taking up the visor debate but I'm afraid he is wasting his energy, as is everyone else. Nothing is going to change as long as most of the NHL's players are not interested in safety. Manny Malholtra is simply the latest player to discover the price of that thinking. As evidence, rather than hammer away at the keyboard to produce 700 words of outrage over this, all I had to do was go to the archives. I wrote the following column on Jan. 23, 2004. Nothing has changed since then except the names of the players. It could run in tomorrow's newspaper and that is not because I consider myself a visionary. D.S.

Jan. 23, 2004

Visor use remains in the eye of a continuing NHL storm

DAVID SHOALTS

So here we are again, surrounded by the debate over visors for the second time this month thanks to yet another Toronto Maple Leafs player who almost lost an eye.

Once again, the experts are quoting statistics relating the use of visors to eye injuries - no National Hockey League player who wears a visor has ever suffered serious eye damage.

Once again, the newspapers and airwaves are full of earnest articles and discussions about how wearing visors should be mandatory in the NHL. And once again, people are wasting their breath.

It is a colossal waste of time for anyone to spend so much as a nanosecond worrying about NHL players and their eyes. If the players do not care, why should we be concerned about 700 well-paid individuals who are well aware of the risks they take every time they step on the ice without the proper safety equipment?

This is not a public-safety issue. The public is not at risk, just a small group of willful boneheads, 65 per cent of those 700 players. No matter how abominably the local side is playing, neither you nor I can walk into an NHL arena and get a job on the team. That is why governments have not forced any common sense on the NHL.

For the past 25 years, thanks to Hockey Canada, our children have had to wear full face protection from the time they enter the minor-hockey system right through to the major-junior ranks. In this case, at least, the actions of the NHL players will not have an effect on the public.

The stupidity here is nothing short of astounding.

These guys spend tens of thousands of dollars on personal trainers to get in the best physical condition possible in order to extend their careers and collect those million-dollar salaries for as long as they can. Yet they will not spend less than $100 to protect something vital to their careers, something that could be lost in, yes, the blink of an eye.

What's surprising is that there are not more cases like Bryan Berard, who lost the sight in an eye while playing for the Maple Leafs four years ago. These players are as lucky as they are stupid.

The number of close calls is staggering. Walk into any NHL dressing room on any given day and you will see at least two players with stitches around their eyes.

Even one of the safety advocates, Dr. Rob Devenyi, the optical surgeon who put the retinas of Owen Nolan and Darcy Tucker back together this month, realizes he's wasting his time when it comes to telling NHL players to wear visors.

"It's not ignorance," Dr. Devenyi said yesterday. "They know the risks. They know what will protect them, but they don't give a damn."

The reason they don't is not a safety issue, it's a cultural issue. Players who wear visors are considered sissies by a sizable portion of the NHL community.

Remember, this is a league in which Jacques Plante had to endure hearing even his own coach question his courage when he decided it made sense for goaltenders to wear a mask. Think how ridiculous that sounds more than 40 years later.

But the same thing happened in 1979 when the NHL finally made helmets compulsory. We are not talking about great thinkers here.

These people think that if the league just cracked down on the players wielding the sticks the problem would go away. It is to laugh.

While players who are careless with their sticks should be punished severely, it will not make NHL rinks any less dangerous. Berard was blinded by a follow-through on a slap shot, not by someone swinging a stick. Yet players still put forward the tired old excuses, with visors restricting vision being the favourite.

Leafs forward Gary Roberts, one of those guys who spends a small fortune on personal trainers, came out with this beauty a day after his second teammate underwent retina surgery: "But if you're [a physical]type of player, you take the risk that a visor can cut you."

Yikes! A cut! What hockey player could risk that?

And don't look for the league or the NHL Players' Association to play the hero here. The league would have to make it a bargaining issue, which makes it easy to do nothing, and the union routinely shrugs because its surveys say the players like things the way they are.

There was once some thought the big insurance companies might ride to the rescue by refusing to pay disability claims for players without visors. But Dr. Devenyi found out this was a non-starter.

"I looked into that a couple of years ago," he said. "[The companies]won't do it because they are all clamouring for these policies because they make a lot more than they pay out in claims."

If you're looking for a hero, maybe Tie Domi is your man. After seeing three Leaf teammates stricken, he said he plans to wear a visor in practice and may do so in games.

In the unlikely event that Domi follows through, that would make him the first NHL enforcer to wear one regularly. If he persevered through the inevitable taunts about his manhood, just think what an influence that would have around the league.

Call him the latter-day Jacques Plante.



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