This feature is part of our bi-weekly look at the NHL, which appears every other Sunday on Page 2 of the print edition.
Every time an NHL player falls to his knees, his gloved hands pressed against his face and a puddle of blood on the ice beneath him, I cringe.
Then I get angry, because a piece of plastic, four screws and some common sense likely would have prevented it.
The visor debate has been simmering for as long as I can remember. But a recent string of serious eye injuries — Philadelphia Flyers captain Chris Pronger’s being the latest — has the issue back on the front burner.
Which is right where it should remain until every player in the NHL is wearing one.
At the end of last season, 420 players, or 61 percent, of the NHL’s players wore a visor, according to statistics provided by the league.
The NHL players’ association says that number is actually closer to 68 percent. (The discrepancy could be due to the fluidity of NHL rosters and call-ups from the American Hockey League, which has mandated visors since the 2006-07 season.)
So what are we to make of the other 32-39 percent and the leaders within the NHL and the players’ union? Were the injuries to Ian Laperriere, Manny Malhotra, Tom Poti, George Parros and Pronger — all within the past two seasons — not enough?
Remember Bryan Berard, the first overall draft pick in 1995 who lost most of the vision in his right eye 11 seasons ago? What will it take? A star player, in the prime of his career, losing his sight and being forced into retirement to hammer home something that, in the opinion of most reasonable people, shouldn’t even be up for debate?
Players who don’t wear a visor say it restricts their vision, fogs up and becomes a distraction because it constantly requires wiping.
Enforcers, meanwhile, see visors as potentially dangerous in a fight and, thus, an infringement on their right to earn a paycheck for punching another hockey player in the face.
The excuses are as lame as the ones that are keeping them from becoming mandatory.
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, said the league has repeatedly proposed a mandatory visor rule to the players and that the players have consistently rejected the proposal. He also said it is the league’s position that it will only move forward on the issue with the cooperation of the union.
As for the players’ association, a spokesman said the majority of its membership maintains that the decision to wear a visor should be the individual’s choice.
If that’s the case, then it’s time to take the debate out of the players’ hands and for strong leadership to take a stand. There was, after all, a time when hockey helmets — and seatbelts, for that matter — were not compulsory, either. Sometimes people need to be protected from themselves.
The solution is a simple — and familiar — one: Just as the NHL did with helmets 32 years ago, it should begin phasing in visors beginning next season. Those who don’t wear them will be “grandfathered.” Anyone who enters the league after October 2012, however, must wear one.
Fortunately for Pronger, he escaped serious damage to his right eye and was able to return to the lineup after missing a mere six games.
But everyone, Pronger included, knows he was incredibly fortunate. Had Mikhail Grabovski’s stick struck a millimeter further to left or right, it’s entirely possible we would discussing the gruesome — and avoidable — end of what will certainly be a Hall of Fame career.
“You don’t want to know my stance” on visors, Pronger joked five days after sustaining the injury, his eye still swollen, his vision still blurry. “That’s for another day.”
When Pronger returned on Nov. 9, he did so wearing a visor for the first time in his 17-year career, albeit begrudgingly. It was required by team doctors.
For every situation like Pronger’s, there’s an example of how a visor prevented an injury altogether. Just ask Anaheim’s Francois Beauchemin about the virtues of a piece clear plastic that costs $30-100. A week before Pronger was inadvertently poked on a follow-through, the Ducks defenseman was clearing the crease when he was struck above his left eye by 90 mph one-timer from San Jose’s Dan Boyle. Beauchemin’s visor, though, took the brunt of the impact and he returned to the game after getting a few stitches.
“In that fraction of a second you have time to think, ‘Oh, my God, did something happen bad? Is my eye okay?’” Beauchemin said. “I opened my eyes and I could see.”
Unlike Pronger, Beauchemin didn’t need luck. Just a little common sense.