More and more NHL players have been wearing them every season, but now visor usage will be guaranteed to rise until it hits 100 per cent in hockey’s top league.
And one day, in the not-too-distant future, the sort of grotesque eye injuries that have occurred on the ice in recent years with alarming frequency will be a thing of the past.
Watch: NHLPA special assistant Mathieu Schneider on the decision
The league’s competition committee emerged from a day-long meeting late Tuesday afternoon to announce that it had decided to grandfather-in visors, making them mandatory beginning next season for all players with less than 26 games of NHL experience.
The decision will require a rubber stamp from the NHL’s board of governors and the NHL Players’ Association’s executive board, but both will simply be formalities after a survey of players found the majority were on board with the move.
“This was the first time since we’ve been polling players that we’ve had a clear majority that wanted to grandfather it in,” said NHLPA special assistant Mathieu Schneider, who didn’t wear a visor during his nearly 1,300-game career. “We feel very comfortable with where the players stand on this.”
The move comes almost exactly two months to the day after New York Rangers defenceman Marc Staal was hit in the eye with a puck and suffered extensive damage that will likely impact his vision the rest of his life.
Two other high-profile injuries to Vancouver Canucks veteran Manny Malhotra and AHL defenceman Jordan Smith in recent years have also helped to shift players’ perspective, with the fact Smith lost the vision in his left eye in 2006, spurring the NHL’s top feeder league to introduce mandatory visors the following season.
That change mean that essentially every player entering the NHL was already wearing facial protection, as every development league required its use.
Visor usage in the NHL increased to a record high of 73 per cent this season, which is up dramatically from approximately 15 per cent in 1998-99, 28 per cent in 2001-02 and 50 per cent in 2007.
Even so, there was little support for immediately making visors mandatory for all players when the NHLPA surveyed its players in the past few days.
Grandfathering them in became the compromise solution.
“Every time there’s an injury like that, any player that’s playing without a visor starts to think about it,” Schneider said of Staal’s injury, which spurred his two brothers, Eric and Jordan, to begin wearing facial protection this season.
“Or has his mom calling him or his wife telling him or his kids telling him. I dealt with that throughout my career. It’s a reason why the numbers are so high. More guys put a visor on after the Staal injury this year.”
Tuesday’s competition committee meeting was attended by all of the league’s top decision makers, including commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider.
Mike Cammalleri of the Calgary Flames, Ron Hainsey of the Winnipeg Jets, Cory Schneider of the Vancouver Canucks, and David Backes and Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues took part as voting members of the committee.
Entering the day’s discussions, the belief around the league was that players were finally ready to make a major move on visors.
General managers have been pushing for a grandfathering rule for several years, with even old-school executives like former Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren weighing in on the side of more facial protection.
“To me, it’s not an issue: Players should wear them,” Holmgren said a few days after Flyers captain Chris Pronger was hit by a high stick to the eye in 2011, an injury that contributed to what appears to be the premature end of his career.
“Visors should be mandatory for all defencemen, at the least,” added Burke, whose mind was changed after he visited Smith – then an Anaheim Ducks prospect – in the hospital shortly after his career-ending injury.
Complaints about the change from players were minimal on Tuesday, with only Brian Sutherby, who has spent the last two seasons in the AHL, voicing a mild concern that there will be more high-sticking incidents with players better protected.
“Good and bad comes with the new visor rule,” Sutherby said on Twitter. “Great for shots or deflected pucks to the face, but it also encourages reckless play. Guys are not as careful with their sticks, and you're more willing to put your face in areas maybe you wouldn't normally. Noticeable in AHL.”
Making visors mandatory for an increasingly large number of players will likely make for some small rule changes, too. For one, a rule penalizing players with a visor for instigating a fight will likely be done away with.
For another, much more attention will now be paid to customizing visors for individual players, with Schneider explaining that the NHLPA intends to work with manufacturers to make facial protection more tailored to players’ needs.
Some NHL players, like Flyers defenceman Luke Schenn have ugly scars on their faces, for example, as the result of an ill-fitting visor coming down repeatedly on the bridge of their nose.
“Visors typically are one size fits all,” Schneider said. “That’s part of the work that we’re going to do … work with equipment manufacturers to try to get visors that allow the players to feel like it’s not a change.”
Beyond visors, the other main issues the competition committee discussed on the day were shrinking goaltending equipment, introducing a hybrid icing rule and forming a subcommittee to look at all players’ equipment.
Several minor tweaks will be introduced in time for next season, including nets that are four inches shallower to allow for more room behind the goal, video review for four-minute high-sticking penalties and the use of hybrid icing in preseason.
Cracking down on the size of goalie equipment, however, was the main area of conversation, with NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell noting that both sides want suspensions and fines with “teeth” for netminders who don’t obey any new or existing restrictions.
“The players agreed with us that we have to be stricter in our approach,” Campbell said, calling reducing goalie equipment and/or increasing the size of nets the Groundhog Day topic. “We have to actually deal with goaltenders who do cheat.”
“We don’t want to be in a situation like we have been with goalie equipment where we continue to do small things and revisit it every couple of years,” Schneider said. “We want to make some major changes and feel comfortable where we are and we won’t have to change it for a long time again.”
As for reducing the depth of the net – something that has been tested at multiple research and development camps the past few summers – Campbell said it would be part of yet another attempt by the league to create more offence.
“The purpose is more room to work behind the net, more room to come out and do the jam plays,” he said. “Hoping to produce more offence again. We’ve had this net ready for three or four years.”