Ever mindful of conflict of interest here, I have to say right off the top that I approach this topic with extreme prejudice.
Ten years ago in an old-timers game a deflected puck flew up and struck my right eye dead-on during a game that, hard as it might be to believe, I was merely between visors. One shield had broken off the previous match and, though I had purchased a brand-new one, I had forgotten to attach it to my helmet before heading out. I will admit that, for the first part of the game there was a delightful sense of freedom – not that it really matters much that you might see so clearly in a game no one in their right mind would watch – and I was rather enjoying it right up until everything went dark. And red.
It seemed at first just a cut. It had, after all, seemed so innocent a play, a pure accident from the moment the defenceman’s stick tipped the puck until it slapped in just under my right eyebrow. When the blood cleared, however, it was like I was looking at the world through a glass of salt water.
Torn retinas are no fun. “There’s nothing to worry about,” the eye specialist said. “It will just feel like a pin going through Saran Wrap.”
He said this prior to producing a needle that was roughly the size of a medieval battering ram. Freeze the eye, pop the eye, pack it with liquid nitrogen, pop the eye back and hope. It worked, though even today there are so many floaters in that puck-shy eye that, if I turn quickly to the left, it is like I have scared up a flock of ghost pigeons.
So you can see where I am going here, surely. Not wearing eye protection is simply stupid, no matter if you are a child in minor hockey, a seasoned NHL professional or a washed-up old-timer who might better be using what vision he has left to look into the mirror.
Why the argument even needs to be made today boggles. One-Eyed Frank McGee, who lost his eye to a rising puck, should be a moniker never repeated in professional hockey. He played, after all, more than a century ago.
Perhaps once there was reason to work eye care into the national game at a speed in which players could adjust – perhaps even grandfathering those who had never, ever dealt with looking through the bars of a cage or through the light streaks and scratches of a plastic shield in need of replacement.
But how long has that argument been rendered senseless, let alone moot?
All players – and yes, elder statesman Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers, the latest to suffer an accidental hit to the eye, is one of them – came up through a system in which eye protection was part of the reality of playing hockey. It has been some time before there has been any reality to players getting used to such a restriction.
If society operated like the NHL, then we would enforce seat belts to 21, personal choice beyond, speeding would be up to the individual as would steel toes on construction sites, life jackets on boats and security checks on flights. There are many who would love just that; there are, fortunately, a great many more who do not wish it.
The argument for individual choice at the NHL level, however, is apt. These are, indeed, grown men, if not always mature men. They could, if they chose, decide to forgo cup protection once they turned professional, but they do not for obvious reasons.
In fact, such a policy – eye protection for all – need have nothing whatsoever to do with either the National Hockey League Players’ Association or the NHL or the two working in tandem.
It should simply be the same reasoning as that which has each and every player pulling on a jock each night before heading out onto the ice.
Simple common sense.