Thursday, 6 March 2008

Throats Are Better Than Eyes?

It occurred to me today that there is something significantly wrong with the NHL. I'm not talking about their lack of television exposure, although that still is a major problem. Instead, I take up the cause for faces in the NHL, specifically the need for mandatory visors. I realize that this issue is a very touchy subject with NHL players, but with the recent slate of facial injuries in the NHL, and with Richard Zednik's injury prompting leagues to make throat protection mandatory, it's high time that the NHL becomes a leader rather than a follower. As the premiere hockey league in the world, the NHL had better start taking a long look in the mirror when it comes to protecting its most marketable assets - the players.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that throat protection is not important for players. In fact, I think that it is vital in the NHL now, especially in light of the incident involving Richard Zednik. More often than not, there are highlights of players going head over heels and narrowly missing other players and officials with their skates. Again, protection for your most important and most marketable assets is paramount.

However, if the NHL and NHLPA is now examining throat protection for the players, why are they not looking at visors as being a mandatory piece of equipment?

"Right after [Zednik's accident] happened, somebody on our team said maybe we should wear neck guards," Los Angeles Kings forward Michael Cammalleri said to the Associated Press. "I don't know if it would fly, to be honest with you, but there's been a couple of scary incidents and you never want to see that."

A couple? I'm not sure how often Mr. Cammalleri watches Sportscenter, but let me run down a few of these scary incidents:

1. Toronto Maple Leafs' defenceman Bryan Berard was struck by an errant stick from Marian Hossa of the Ottawa Senators on March 11, 2000 and lost 80 percent of the vision in his left eye. He was 23 when the injury occurred.

2. Ottawa Senators defenceman Chris Phillips was hit above the right eye during an innocent play along the boards in Edmonton on February 26, 1998. He was 19 when the injury occurred.

3. St. Louis Blues forward Pavol Demitra was high-sticked in the eye by Phoenix Coyotes' defenceman Radoslav Suchy on the follow-thru during a clearing attempt on February 24, 2001, resulting in a bruised retina. He was 26 at the time.

4. St. Louis Blues' defenceman Al MacInnis was forced to retire after missing 79 games in the 2003-04 season after taking a high-stick from San Jose Sharks' defenceman Scott Hannan. MacInnis ended up with a detached retina. He was 40 at the time of the injury.

5. Detroit Red Wings' forward Steve Yzerman was hit with a puck in the eye after it ricocheted off the end boards from a Mathieu Schneider shot. Yzerman ended up with a scratched cornea and broken bone just below his left eye. He was 38 at the time.

I could run through hundreds of other players who have taken severe facial and ocular injuries on the ice - Colin White (NJD), Mats Sundin (TOR), Kris Draper (DET), Darcy Tucker (TOR) as examples - but none quite compare to the injury taken by former Anaheim Ducks' prospect Jordan Smith.

Smith was a rookie defenceman for the Portland Pirates of the AHL when he was hit by the puck on February 24, 2006 in a game against the Manchester Monarchs. The slapshot was deflected, and it hit the 20 year-old directly in the eye. Despite their best efforts, surgeons could not save Smith's left eye, and he now wears a prosthetic.

He told the New York Times that he refuses to think about how thing smay have changed if he was wearing a visor on that night. "The worst thing for me to do would be to play the what-if game," he said.

AHL president Dave Andrews aggressively pushed for the rule change after Smith's career was ended. "From our point of view, it was completely a safety issue," Andrews told the Ottawa Citizen. "Over the last 10-12 years, we've had six or seven players who have had their careers ended by eye injuries. Obviously there has been a discussion on and off for years about mandating it, but we just felt it was time. We couldn't have gone ahead without the support of the general managers of the NHL."

The AHL mandated visors for all players in the 2006-07 season, leaving the National Hockey League as the only major professional or junior league in North America that does not require them. Does anyone see a problem with this? How is it that the NHL, the so-called "best league in the world", is last to make this piece of equipment mandatory?

Section 224 in the IIHF Rulebook covers visors and facemasks. Section A of the rulebook states "[i]t is recommended that all players wear a full face mask or visor". The IIHF recommends it, but they aren't trying to make millions of dollars like the NHL is.

However, Section B states "[p]layers born after December 31, 1974 shall wear, as a minimum, a visor". Section C states that "[t]he visor shall extend down to cover the eyes and the lower edge of the nose in frontal and lateral projections". Basically, the visor has to cover the face to the tip of the nose from both the front and the sides. This seems like a pretty good starting point for what a visor should be.

I can't remember a single major eye or facial injury in international hockey in all my years of watching and following hockey. Does anyone else see a direct correlation between the lack of facial injuries in international hockey and the requirement to wear a visor? Maybe I'm just grasping at straws here?

Science has looked into this "coincidence" as well. Published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found within the Volume 9, Issue 3 copy published in June 2006 on pages 238-242, a report entitled "The effect of visors on head and facial injury in National Hockey League players" gave this summary of the findings:

"There has been an increase in the number of concussions sustained by players in the National Hockey League (NHL). While wearing a helmet is now required by the NHL, the face visor remains optional. It is unknown to what degree face visors influence concussion, other head injury and eye-injury rates at the professional level. Data from the 2001–2002 NHL season were examined. It was found that wearing a face visor did not significantly influence the prevalence of concussion. Visor protection did, however, minimise eye-injuries and other, non-concussion head injuries. These data suggest that, while a visor may prevent some head and eye-injuries, other measures may be necessary to reduce the number of concussions."

The key phrase in that summary is: "Visor protection did, however, minimise eye-injuries and other, non-concussion head injuries". The NHL and NHLPA, however, have refused to make visors mandatory.

There have been other findings as well. Dr. Michael J. Stuart, chief medical officer of USA Hockey, and co-director of the sports medicine center at the Mayo Clinic, presented a 2002 study of junior hockey to the AHL’s Players' Association and board of governors last summer. Dr. Stuart is also the father of NHL defenceman Mark Stuart.

"Head and facial injuries were much more common if you didn’t wear a visor," Dr. Stuart told the New York Times. Stuart's study found that a player was 4.7 times more likely to suffer an eye injury if he wasn't wearing a visor. Those kinds of statistics make wearing a visor equivalent to wearing a seatbelt in the car.

Like seatbelts, there are complaints about visors. "There's no question about it," Bryan Berard told the Canadian Press. "One thing I do say is that having a visor on at certain points prevents injury, but I'm one that believes the visors are the reason why there are more sticks up. I think guys get more careless when they do feel protected and sticks do come up."

There are also other complaints. Having their vision somewhat changed, fog, sweat, and water all have been voiced as reasons not to have them. "You don’t get fogged up, you don’t get water or sweat on your shield," Mark Stuart told the New England Hockey Journal. "You’re just a little more free."

The president of the AHL disagrees with these complaints. "I come from a hockey background, I understand the arguments against it, but there has been a huge improvement in the past five or 10 years, if you look at the quality of options," Dave Andrews said to the Ottawa Citizen. "The performance argument doesn't hold a lot of water. Every player coming into the league has worn one before, whether it's from Canadian junior or Europe or the East Coast League."

Dave Cameron, coach of the Senators' AHL team in Binghamton, New York, agrees with Mr. Andrews. "A lot of guys are probably relieved they don't have to explain why they're wearing them anymore. I think it's all part of the package. I think the game is changing. The onus used to be on the skilled guys being tough; now the onus is on the tough guys trying to be skilled. The other factor is the speed of the game. Everybody can shoot the puck. It used to be three, four, five guys on every team could really shoot, now everybody can. Just look at the number of referees getting hit now."

Mr. Cameron makes a good point. Linesman Pat Dapuzzo was seriously injured this season during a game between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. The video shows what happened:

Downie's skate catches Dapuzzo in the face.

Dapuzzo's injuries included a broken nose and a cut that required twenty stitches to close. If you notice on the video, he's not wearing a visor.

Ryan Galloway, another NHL linesman, was recently hit in the face with the puck during a game in Edmonton. Galloway wears a visor, and only received a bruised cheek and a couple of stitches to close his wound. The puck did catch the visor, though, and saved Galloway from further injury.

In 2001, 24 per cent of NHL players chose to wear a visor. Last season, the number was up to 38 per cent, and it's estimated that 40 per cent of players are wearing visors this season. More and more players are turning to visors to protect their faces, so why haven't the NHL and NHLPA noted this trend?

"Everybody should wear a visor," said former Ottawa Senators GM John Muckler to the Ottawa Citizen. Muckler remembers not so fondly when a helmetless Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died after smashing his head on the ice during a game on Jan. 13, 1968. "I think it's only a matter of time. The thing is, hockey players think they're bulletproof, that it is not going to happen to them."

The evidence suggests that this thought process will only result in disaster. There have been far more major facial injuries in the NHL in the last decade than what would justify making throat protection mandatory.

Visors certainly can't prevent every injury, though. Saku Koivu of the Montreal Canadiens, who wears a visor, was struck in the left eye by the errant stick of Carolina Hurricanes' forward Justin Williams during the opening round of the 2006 NHL Playoffs. Dany Heatley, while playing for SC Bern, was hit in the eye by a shot from teammate Daniel Briere in the second period of a game in 2004. The pupil in his left eye became permanently dilated as a result.

However, the number of major facial injuries to players with visors on is significantly lower than those without visors. If the NHL and NHLPA want to make visors mandatory, I suggest they follow the precendent they set when the NHL decided to make helmets mandatory in 1979. All new players coming into the NHL were required to wear helmets, while veterans had the option of wearing one. This grandfather clause saw the last helmetless player retire in 1997 when Craig MacTavish decided to hang up the skates. Better yet, make both visors AND neck guards mandatory at the same time for both players AND officials.

Anaheim Ducks' forward Teemu Selanne, who has ordered neck guards for his three children, thinks it would work. "If you start right now, the rule for newcomers, rookies, coming into the league, they have to wear it, it's mandatory, no one's ever going to complain," he said to the Associated Press. "That's what Europe has done with their program. Nobody complains. You start wearing them in juniors, in mites. I tell you, it's going to save a lot of lives. Even if it saves one it's worth it."


AHL President Dave Andrews makes every AHL player wear a visor, and supports all players wearing visors. Dave Cameron, AHL coach, feels all players and officials should wear a visor. Former NHL GM John Muckler thinks all players should wear visors. Dr. Michael J. Stewart, chief medical officer of USA Hockey, says all players should wear a visor. The IIHF recommends all players wear one, and any one born after December 31, 1974 must wear a visor. All junior and minor-pro hockey leagues in North America require players to wear visors. 40% of the players in NHL are currently wearing visors.

The NHL has done nothing.

The NHLPA reserves the right to allow its members the option of choosing to wear one or to not wear one.

Is it just me, or is this anti-union? A union is supposed to look out for the good of its members, yet they allow players to play a dangerous sport without equipment than can protect their longevity. Call me crazy, but protecting a right so that the players can be seriously hurt or killed due to their vanity is utterly stupid.

Visors should be mandatory. 'Nuff said.

I'd like to hear your comments on this situation, both for and against. Please leave a comment below. I'd like to see what the readers of this blog think regarding making visors and/or neck guards mandatory.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


elise said...

The issues of visors is definitely an interesting one. Whenever I hear the visor issue, I can't help but think of Wild D-man Kurtis Foster. Last year his larynx was broken when he was hit in the throat with the puck...while on the bench. He has also gotten many facial injuries from pucks, so he finally switched to a visor. Then, a few weeks ago, a puck railed up his stick and cut up his face...again. The Minneapolis Star Tribune got some nice pictures of one of his black eyes and broken cheekbones.

I understand the older guys who might not be used to wearing them, but with the younger players you'd think they would automatically use them. Between the protection studies and the full face shields required at many levels, it seems kind of like common sense.

This was a really interesting piece, though. Thanks for writing it!

Greener said...

Holy shit, dude, great article!

Teebz said...

Elise - it seems like a no-brainer to me. I still wear the full cage when I play hockey, and I'm 28.

Greener - it needed to be said again. Visors save lives.

Thanks for reading to both of you! :o)