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player safety

Former hockey player Tie Domi sports a visorJ.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

The biggest player in disability insurance for the National Hockey League says the push for mandatory visor use must come from the NHL players, not his industry.

Greg Sutton, the president of Sutton Special Risk in Toronto, which has personal disability policies with more than 450 players and also handles insurance matters for the NHL and many of its 30 teams, says there is too much competition within the insurance industry and few payouts for career-ending eye injuries, which means there are few business reasons for companies to demand players wear visors as a condition of staying covered.

He was responding to remarks in this space a week ago by Lalita Mohabir, a senior personal accident underwriter at Burns & Wilcox Canada, which is a smaller player in the sports insurance business. She said her company will demand NHL players wear visors as a condition for coverage.

"I personally have indicated … it's not our role to effect change," Sutton said. "I'm not going to be cavalier and say we won't insure people without visors, that's not going to happen.

"But would I encourage visors by maybe giving a discount? Sure, we've talked about it. But [the insurance business] is so competitive I'm discounting [policies] anyway."

The last payout for a career-ending eye injury Sutton can remember went to defenceman Bryan Berard, who lost most of the vision in one eye when he was playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs and was struck by a stick on Mar. 11, 2000.

However, Berard returned the lump-sum payment when he decided to continue his NHL career in the 2001-02 campaign. He played seven more seasons but was never the offensive force he was expected to be when he was voted the NHL's rookie of the year in 1997.

Sutton says he personally favours visor use and was happy to see NHL Players' Association executive Mathieu Schneider say this week the union may consent to mandatory use with a grandfather clause exempting current players. At present, 73 per cent of the league's 740 players wear visors.

The biggest problem for career-ending injuries is concussions, Sutton says. He thinks the league and the players have taken important steps to reduce the number of concussions in recent years but says the nature of the game means the problem will never go away.

"I think they are taking it more seriously," Sutton said. "We are watching [the issue] closely with what's happening with the [concussion] lawsuits in the NFL by the former players. I think it's a challenge for everyone."