Posted: Thursday October 20, 2005 3:28PM; Updated: Thursday October 20, 2005 3:28PM
Steve Yzerman suffered a serious eye injury when hit by a puck in the 2004 playoffs. The Red Wings captain now wears a visor.
Gary Bettman gave a speech at a Canadian media awards banquet on Wednesday. Judging by the transcript of his remarks, either his sport is off to a spectacular start or he had just filled a mammoth Ritalin prescription.
Gone was the dourness the commissioner had exhibited for most of the last three years, when Bettman routinely trashed his sport, trashed the players and made us all wonder why the nickname Little Ball of Hate had been wasted on Pat Verbeek. Bettman was beaming on Wednesday, and rightly so. The NHL's new era if off to a rollicking start. Scoring is up. Obstruction is down, or at least being heavily penalized. Things may change when the games take on more weight later in the season, but for now hockey is fun to watch again.
But one unfortunate holdover from the old NHL already has reared its head: the tired and foolish debate about visors.
It's frightening to envision the sort of gory tragedy it will take to convince players that their opposition to mandatory facial protection is asinine. Need a reminder? We got one a whopping half-a-period into the season. Toronto's Mats Sundin was hit by a puck over the eye on opening night and will be out for another month with a cracked orbital bone. On Monday, Detroit's Kris Draper took a puck to the face. It seems he was luckier than Sundin. He's only dealing with retinal swelling in his right eye and is day-to-day.
Draper, by the way, now plans to wear a visor, the sixth Red Wing to do so. Captain Steve Yzerman once was opposed to wearing one but changed his mind after suffering severe facial injuries when he was hit by a puck in the 2004 playoffs.
But for the most part, players continue to insist that wearing a shield is a matter of individual choice. Even after his injury, Sundin said he's not sure if he'll don a visor when he returns. On Wednesday, a few days after one of his players, Shane Doan, was hit in the face with a puck, Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky chimed in. He backed the freedom-of-choice cause and added that he couldn't see the puck when he tried to play with a visor. Gretzky also said he won't allow his son on the ice without a visor, proving that he's a smarter dad than coach.
The impaired vision argument -- ironic, isn't it? -- is a red herring, as is the complaint that visors lead to more injuries because players feel they can wave their sticks around at face level with impunity. The truth is this: Visors are abhorred because they're considered unmanly by the old-time hockey crowd. (Apparently, back on the frozen ponds of yesteryear, nothing said virile like an eye patch and a seeing-eye dog.)
Remember the Kings' Sean Avery's tirade against French-Canadian players after Denis Gauthier's concussive hit on Jeremy Roenick in a preseason game? It wasn't by accident that, at least twice during his rant, Avery mentioned that Gauthier was wearing a visor. Every NHLer knew the code. Avery might as well have said Gauthier was wearing a skirt.
More and more players are wising up. According to a study by The Hockey News, 38 percent of the league's skaters (244 out of 640) are visored, roughly a 3 percent increase over 2003-04 and an all-time high. But the league and the NHL Players' Association need to step in and save the unvisored 62 percent from themselves. The new NHL has succeeded in making the game more palatable to fans. Now they must find a way to make it safer for players.
With the bitter labor war now over, new union chief Ted Saskin should make his mark on the game by convincing his constituents to agree with the league on a mandatory visor policy. (It could be grandfathered in, as the helmet rule was 25 years ago.) It should be a no-brainer, because we know how committed to safety the union is.
When the league proposed the downsizing of goalie equipment last year, it took the union about 15 minutes to file a complaint on the grounds that smaller pads would leave netminders more vulnerable to injury. It would be nice if the NHLPA showed the same type of assertiveness on a far more serious issue.
It doesn't seem likely to happen. Saskin's response to the Sundin injury was to poll players, and they overwhelmingly voted no on shields. Players have turned a blind eye to this issue for too long. Sooner or later, for some unfortunate skater, that won't just be a figure of speech.