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New York Rangers' Marc Staal is helped by a trainer after being injured during the third period of an NHL game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, March 5, 2013, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)
New York Rangers' Marc Staal is helped by a trainer after being injured during the third period of an NHL game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, March 5, 2013, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Injury to Staal reignites eye-protection debate Add to ...

Up close, you can see the bruising around Sheldon Souray’s right eye finally starting to fade. There is still a mouse there, plus the remnants of the three stitches needed to close a cut just under his eyebrow.

Souray had a close call in last week’s game against the Los Angeles Kings – a puck deflecting up and into his face so quickly he couldn’t react in time to get out of the way.

If it had been half-an-inch closer, Souray acknowledged: “I could have been Marc Staal.”

Marc Staal is the New York Rangers’ defencemen, who was a little less lucky than Souray during Tuesday night’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Staal had a puck deflected by Jakub Voracek carom up and into his eye, sending him sprawling to the ice, writhing in pain.

It wasn’t pretty to watch and it once again raised an age-old issue about the NHL and player safety. Why wasn’t eye protection mandated eons ago? There is a steady list of players, from one era to the next – Henry Boucha to Bryan Berard to Manny Malhotra – who’ve had careers threatened or ended because they took a puck or a stick in the eye.

In 1979, the NHL made helmet use mandatory, but grandfathered the rule so that it remained optional for any players already in the league.

It would be a simple matter to introduce a comparable rule for visors – simpler actually because every player who comes into the league nowadays has been wearing facial protection from the moment they began playing minor hockey.

“There’s no logical reason why not to do it – to grandfather it in,” said Souray on Wednesday, a day when the visor debate was reignited around the league. “As a player who’s been around for a while, I wouldn’t want someone telling me I had to do it. But the game has also changed in the last seven or eight years. There’s less fighting. You even see some of the tough guys wearing visors – and they have no problem taking their helmets off so no one gets hurt [in a fight].

“To be honest, I really don’t see any logical reason why we wouldn’t want to protect the investment of the teams. When you see a player like Marc Staal get injured, you wonder why we haven’t done that already.”

Staal was examined in New York Wednesday by Mark Fromer, an ophthalmologist, and Mendel Markowitz, a maxillofacial surgeon. Afterward, the team said that Staal’s injury had “improved significantly” and said “both doctors are optimistic that Marc will make a full recovery.”

Still, Staal will be sidelined indefinitely and to replace him in the lineup, th e Rangers picked up defenceman Roman Hamrlik on waivers from the Washington Capitals.

Sometimes, a lingering, ongoing, controversial discussion needs a tipping point to finally galvanize movement – and perhaps Staal’s injury will represent that moment.

The NHL has been trying to get visors made mandatory for years, but the NHL Players’ Association has generally resisted, at the request of its rank-and-file, who are surveyed every year about the matter and steadfastly want to retain the status quo.

Visor use has crept up in the NHL, year over year, and according to NHLPA figures, it is at 73 per cent this year, up from 69 per cent last year. Officially, the NHLPA position hasn’t changed, according to Mathieu Schneider, the former player and special assistant to executive director Donald Fehr. In a statement released Wednesday, Schneider reiterated: “While the players support visor use being a matter of individual choice, we continue to regularly educate the players on the benefits of wearing a visor, so each player can make an informed decision.”

Schneider said the issue, plus other equipment-related matter, would be further explored at the NHLPA’s annual summer player meetings.

Coyotes captain Shane Doan wears a visor now after playing some 900 games without one, and says he is conflicted by the issue. On the one hand, he believes players should have the right to make that choice individually and thus opposes the call for mandatory visors.

“But as a dad of an 11-year-old boy, I would like him to wear one because he’s used to,” Doan said. “It definitely alters your vision. There is no way that anyone can argue that it doesn’t.”

Doan finally relented and donned a visor after getting hit in the nose by a puck on consecutive nights, the second one causing his nose “to explode pretty badly. There was no skin left, so the doctors said I had to have something covering it because if you don’t, the next step was going to a skin graft.

“I had to wear it for a month and a half. I was going to take it off, but the game before I did, I hit Martin Havlat or he hit me and his skate came down across my visor and cut right through it. I had to replace my visor and I was like, ‘Okay, that would have sucked.’”

In 2000, when he was coaching in the minors, Coyotes assistant coach Jim Playfair, whose career ended because of a detached retina, said he asked his team – the Saint John Flames – to try wearing visors for a week, at practice, and promised them there would be no repercussions from missed plays because of vision errors. Altogether, about seven or eight stuck with them.

“I think we work hard so hard to create safety throughout minor hockey that it’s crazy we don’t do something more to protect our eyes,” Playfair said. “Doctors protect their eyes in surgery. Welders protect their eyes. People working in construction are always protecting their eyes. Yet we play in a high-paced game and we don’t. But I think if we make it mandatory, the players are all going to gravitate towards that.

“Common sense just tells you, put one on everybody and let’s go.”

Intervention may eventually come from an interested third party – the NHL’s insurance companies, who could eventually decide not to insure against an eye injury for any player who doesn’t don a visor. That would make it cut-and-dried – the financial risks would be too great for any player or team to take.

Some will argue that visors do not offer a perfect protective solution and they would be correct. A stick blade can get up under a visor and do some damage. A player can get his face mushed into the boards and cut himself on his visor. But the rewards far outweigh the risks and you only need to shudder at the footage of Staal to realize that.

Souray is an old-school, throwback-type of player – physical and steeped in the ethic of the game. He will freely tell you that he came into the league – in the mid-1990s – there was a stigma of sorts attached to wearing a visor. Even his mind is pondering a shift in thinking.

“When I came into the league and didn’t have to wear a visor, it was almost like a badge of honour,” Souray said. “It was an ‘I’m a man’ sort of thing. But so many other things have changed since then. Something as common sense as having a visor or a mouth guard – I chipped my teeth the other day – these are two things, why wouldn’t we all be wearing them.

“I’m a little stubborn, but after getting this and that,” he said, pointing to his black eye and his chipped tooth, “I don’t know anymore. [Wearing a visor], it doesn’t make you any less masculine.”

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