Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On Visors

If you haven't seen it already, you should definitely check out this fantastic piece posted by NHL FanHouse's Chris Botta. Pat Dapuzzo, a former NHL linesman of 24 years, shares what I'm sure is just a very small part of his experience after having his career ended and his life changed in a freak accident. If you're squeamish, the embedded video on the article may not be for you, but what happens in that video is that Philadelphia Flyer Steve Downie was being hipchecked along the boards by a New York Ranger. Dapuzzo was caught between the boards and the hipcheck, and as Downie pinwheeled over the hitter, his skate stabbed Dapuzzo across the face. The injuries are recounted in the article by Dapuzzo, the most startling of which being that his nose had to be reattached. It's a great piece, but one quote in particular cut to an issue whose answer seems so obvious that I've never been able to understand why it's even a question:

"This is a fact: all this happened to me because I wasn't wearing a face shield."

One of the things we all love about pro athletes (not you, Paul Pierce) is their toughness, and this is particularly true with hockey players. No sport emphasizes or lionizes sacrificing your body for the team like hockey does. The passion and commitment that it takes to drop in front of a Chara/Pronger/MacInnis type blast from the point is one of the greatest things in sports. A large part of the rationalization for making those sacrifices is that the pain is temporary: the bruise will heal, the teeth can be replaced, you can get a shot before the game, and that at worst, the bone can be set and put in a cast to heal. Really, most injuries a hockey player is going to take in their career are things that can be healed and fixed, and allow the player to live a normal life after their career. Perhaps the most glaring exception to this is a person's eyes.

I've been watching sports for years, and I've been on the internet for just as long. I've seen a lot of pretty gruesome injuries, but I can only remember one incident in a sports game that made me instantly gasp in horror, during the live play. In Game 5 of the Wings/Flames series in the 2004 playoffs, a point shot by Mathieu Schnieder deflected in front of the net, redirecting upwards into the left eye of Steve Yzerman. That was easily one of the scariest things I've ever seen. Yzerman was lucky - he was able to recover, and even come back for another year after the lockout. Seeing that video, its not hard to imagine how it could've been even worse.

Eye injuries cost Brian Berard his career. An eye injury forced Al MacInnis into an early retirement. Ducks prospect Jordan Smith lost his career to an eye injury, an incident that prompted the AHL to require visors for all players. There are plenty of examples out there, and even more close calls.

Considering that their bodies and abilities are their living, the fact that most NHL players don't wear visors is simply astounding to me. That the NHL BoG has not forced the issue in an attempt to protect their investments is even more surprising, given their sole motivation comes from dollars and cents. There seem to be 3 reasons, in my mind, why the NHL hasn't made the jump.

The first issue is obviously concern about impeded vision on the ice from the visor. Somehow, many of today's young stars see just fine with a visor, and besides that, there's always the tinted visors to reduce glare. Second, is that "the code", as given to us by the likes of Mike Milbury and Don Cherry and other assorted irrelevant people, demands that you not be a pansy and wear protection... except for shin pads, padded pants, a cup, shoulderpads, elbow pads, and a helmet. Just don't put on that visor, or you might as well go back to France.

Third, and less talked about, I think has to be a confidence and denial issue among players as well. With such skilled players, part of the problem has to also be an issue of overconfidence as well. Sure, an NHL player can deflect a puck or dodge or flinch away from a shot coming his way. It makes it easy to think you can avoid an injury in any situation. Unfortunately, it's never as cut and dry as a straight shot into your eye. On Yzerman's injury, the puck deflected significantly, less than 20 feet away from him. Bryan Berard and Al MacInnis were both injured by sticks, not pucks. Such freak accidents are fortunately uncommon, but the fact is that they still happen, and they are frequently the sort of incidents the victim couldn't dodge or avoid. Coupled with that, the attitude of "It will never happen to me" is definitely a part of the choice not to wear a visor. No one ever plans on suffering a catastophic injury. Of course, no matter how hard you look the other way, such things still happen.

Mandatory use of visors obviously wouldn't prevent every injury. Dany Heatley's left eye remains permanently dilated from an injury that occurred while wearing a visor. Pat Dapuzzo still would've had his face slashed by Downie's skate, but the injuries would certainly have been reduced significantly. But a $50 visor would likely mean Bryan Berard still pulled an NHL paycheck. Wearing a visor, Yzerman may still have been hurt, but at least most of the damage would probably be restricted to his mouth and cheekbones, as opposed to his cornea.

Even in the rec leagues I play in, I wear a visor. As we all know, shit happens. High sticks, deflected shots, or any of a million others things. Losing some teeth, I can deal with that. Even getting my nose broken again, or facial fractures, that can be dealt with. Not pleasant, but you can deal with it. Losing my vision? That's not something that I can deal with, its not something that can be fixed. That a 22 year old who has no material investment in his hockey ability can grasp that idea, while guys making a career out of the game continue to take avoidable career and life altering injuries is mind blowing.


jamestobrien said...

Great stuff, Joe.

I'm with you on the visor issue. While I can see where some people might come from with vision, I think it's pretty obvious that the number one reason players fight visors is bravado.

While those eye injuries don't happen often, the ones that do happen tend to be horrifying. The fact that the league lost the last few great seasons from Al Mac and Stevie Y is reason enough to look at change. Berard's case is also quite tragic, especially since I vaguely recall him turning down a bunch of retirement money to play for peanuts for a year or two.

I bet that it will eventually be a lot like when they required helmets: visors will be grandfathered in so that the zealots can be manly and half-blind.

Joe said...

Yeah, I did a good bit of hunting around on details for things for this, and I remembered something similar with Berard. He had been paid out 6M in insurance, as his career was ended. When he tried to make a comeback, and signed a tryout contract with the Rangers, that would've amounted to saying that his career was not over, and so he had to pay back the 6M insurance settlement, just to take a tryout, nothing guaranteed.

He earned 2M for a season with the Rangers, then bounced around a bit, signing one year deals in successive seasons with the Bruins, Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, and the Islanders, and this year went to the KHL.

I agree on the grandfathering issue, and had the same discussion with Doogie2K @ SNN the other day at Mirtle's. Anecdotally, it seems to me that a lot more youngsters wear visors nowadays, and that has to be at least in part a product of youth in both Canada and the USA being forced to wear facial protection from Day 1. Visor use will likely continue to climb, as many of the old guys leave the game, and are replaced by kids who grew up wearing a facecage or a visor, and at some point will likely be grandfathered in, probably at a point in time in which 75% of players already wear them. That such a rule has not already been implemented just strikes me as just plain negligent.

raventalon40 said...

Ethan Moreau's eye injury almost put his career at risk too.

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