Ryan Walter, the former captain of the Washington Capitals, lies in Montreal General Hospital, counting the days until physicians accurately can evaluate the damage to his left eye.

Now a member of the Montreal Canadiens, Walter can take comfort from the fact that at least 50 percent of the vision has returned to the eye. On Thursday, the day after he was struck by the stick of Quebec's Alain Cote, there was no vision at all.

The tragedy of Walter's situation is that during training camp he experimented with a clear plastic visor, but decided against using it.

"I tried it out, but I didn't feel comfortable enough to play in a game," Walter said today, while being careful not to make any sudden movements. "When I come back, I'm sure I will, and three or four other guys on the team have told me they're going to wear them, too.

"I feel pretty well now. There was a blood clot over the pupil and they were worried about more bleeding, but there's none now. Monday is the big day. That's five days after it happens, when they say they can get a better idea of the damage."

Pierre Mondou, the Montreal center who suffered a similar injury last season and was forced to retire, was at the Forum Wednesday night when Walter was struck and he said, "The first thing that popped into my mind was that when he comes back, he'll wear a visor just like I did. What's wrong with guys like us? Why do we do things when it's too late?"

A more pertinent question would be to ask why the National Hockey League is the only hockey organization in the world that does not at least recommend that all players wear some sort of facial protection.

All players under the jurisdiction of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States must wear a full face mask, of which one approved version is clear plastic. The same rule is in effect for all U.S. colleges and high schools.

The International Ice Hockey Federation requires full face masks for all players 20 and younger, and recommends their use by senior players.

All Canadian youngsters below the junior level are required to wear full face masks, and the three major junior leagues stipulate the same plastic eye visors that Walter tried and discarded.

"The NCAA coaches had requested that collegians wear the half shield as opposed to the full face mask," said Mark Rudolph, the equipment expert for AHAUS. "They claimed that the added weight forced players to skate head down, increasing the risk of being hit from the blind side and suffering severe injuries. But they had no data and they were turned down."

Ron Lapointe, the current Washington assistant coach, was the head man at Shawinigan when the Quebec Hockey League introduced full face masks several years ago.

"The kids didn't want to wear them, but it was pushed through and everything was high stick, high stick," Lapointe said. "They lasted one year. Now, the junior leagues have gone to visors."

Critics of facial protectors claim they increase the incidence of high sticks. The same arguments were used against helmets, which have been mandatory for all players entering the NHL since June 1, 1979, but it should seem obvious that such an increase in high sticking could be controlled by competent officials.

Capital Centre fans saw a career end four years ago when Chicago's Glen Sharpley was struck in the eye while playing against Washington. Last week, Hector Marini, a former NHL winger playing in the International Hockey League, suffered an injury that required removal of an eye. Every time a player takes a stick in the face, there is a possibility he will be playing for the last time.

It was after serious injuries to Brian Engblom and Mike Gartner, both of whom were fortunate enough to continue playing, that the Capitals moved to the forefront in encouraging their players to use the plastic shields. Yet only four now do so -- Gartner, Bob Carpenter, Bengt Gustafsson and Peter Andersson.

"It didn't seem important until we had those serious injuries," said Washington General Manager David Poile. "That's always the way. They're mandatory for juniors now and I think more and more will be wearing them in the future because of the situation at lower levels. The easiest way to make it mandatory, I suppose, would be to base it on future dates, as we did helmets."

Of the Capitals' four current users, only Gartner has experienced any difficulty with the visor. But he has worn it faithfully since he was struck in the eye by an innocent-looking clear off the stick of Winnipeg's Tim Watters at Capital Centre on Jan. 31, 1983.

"There was a period of adjustment and there's still room for improvement with the visors," Gartner said. "There is distortion and they do fog up. There are times when I come back to the bench with my face covered with water because of the sweat.

"But that's a minor thing. It's like a seat belt. It's an inconvenience, but it could save your life . . .

Andersson began wearing a visor in Sweden at an early age and has continued its use. "I was only 14 or 15 and it was the law in Sweden then," Andersson said. "After that, I used it, anyway. I think the problem is to get used to it. If you grow up with it, it's fine."

Gustafsson was the first Washington player to wear a visor and he was instrumental in getting Carpenter to put one back on, after Carpenter had worn one in high school and discarded it during his first season in the NHL.

"I've used it for five years with no problems," Gustafsson said. "We were playing Toronto back to back and I got hit in the mouth and cut my face the first game. I used a visor the next night and I've kept it ever since. Sometimes, there's a little sweat; I just dry it off."

"I went without it a year and I got cut during the summer," Carpenter said. "I came back and I saw Gus wearing one and I tried it and it was fine. I'll never play another game without one."

Carpenter learned the wisdom of his decision a week ago in Los Angeles. He was struck in the face by Engblom's stick and groggily limped off the ice, but the shield absorbed much of the blow.

Not everyone who suffers a facial cut becomes a lifelong proponent of a face shield, however. The Capitals' Bob Gould wore one for a while after he received a 25-stitch facial cut from goaltender Chico Resch's skate in New Jersey Oct. 12. Gould since has discarded it.

Rod Langway, the Capitals' captain, is one of the few NHL players who does not even wear a helmet. He has been struck near an eye twice this season, but asked whether he had considered a visor, he said, "Never. I couldn't even wear a helmet. How could I get it down over my ears?"

It is not a laughing matter, of course, for those who cringe in fear whenever Langway or another player is hit near the eye.

"There have been a lot of eye injuries and I don't understand for the life of me why every player doesn't wear an eye visor," said Alan Eagleson, executive director of the NHL Players Association, which has not made mandatory use a bargaining issue because so many players do not want it.

Perhaps Warren Strelow, the Capitals' assistant coach, put it best when he said, "Ryan Walter is in a hospital and Hector Marini in Fort Wayne lost an eye two weeks ago. The game isn't worth that."