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After Marc Staal’s eye injury, the NHL visor debate continues to rage

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The visor debate in the National Hockey League shouldn’t exist.

There’s not a debate in the AHL or in European leagues or in countless levels of amateur and youth hockey, because eye protection is mandatory. In that sense, it isn’t about NHL players wearing a visor but rather choosing to take it off once they make The Show.

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New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal wore one with the Sudbury Wolves – as you can see right here – but chose not to wear one in the NHL. Which is his prerogative, as has been collectively bargained by the NHLPA: Players can opt to wear, or not to wear, visors.

The eye injury Staal suffered on Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers wasn’t one of those gray areas in the visor debate. If he had a shield, it would have deflected the puck and protected his face.

So why would a player choose not to wear one? Because:

1. They’re a veteran player that has played without one for so long that wearing one could lead to discomfort and ineffective play.

2. They’re a player that is just as concerned about safety as those advocating for mandatory visors are, but they believe that not wearing one actually improves their vision to the point at which their safety is increased.

3. In a point related to No. 3, those players who fight are against mandatory visors because they get in the way of a spontaneous donnybrook. Or as Jody Shelley termed it: “Ease of fighting.”

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4. They see it as a political issue. That the NHL shouldn’t determine how to best protect the players, because the players know better than the NHL how to do so. That the NHL would be taking away a right from players that generations have enjoyed, as our anonymous NHL columnist The Player wrote (don’t worry, he’ll be back, by the way):

These are all valid arguments, but somehow I can't rationalize telling someone else they have to wear a visor when I was given the choice when I came into the League, and would still have the choice under a "grandfather" rule. It doesn't seem right to me, even it's "for their own good." I think there would be fewer foot injuries if every player had to wear the extra plastic "shot blockers" that some guys choose to wear but no one is arguing to make that compulsory.

All of these issues that involve player safety are complicated. The League has a vested interested in keeping the players (its most valuable assets) safe, but it's difficult to reconcile that while promoting hockey for what it has always been — extremely fast, and physical to the point of violent. It's a fine line and I don't think there are many easy answers.

The easy answer for many of us is “just wear the damn visor,” and I’d count myself in that group.

Grandfather in current players if you’d like, but the idea that an AHL player has to wear a shield and an NHL player doesn’t is mind-boggling. This isn’t getting to sit with the adults at Thanksgiving, or buying your first sports car. It isn’t some rite of passage when you get your first NHL contract. It’s an issue of player safety that should trump personal preference, politics and swagger.

Here are a few more visor takes from the aftermath of the Staal incident, starting with David Whitley of Sporting News:

Imagine football without facemasks. Only this is worse, with frozen pucks and deflections and skate blades added to the mix.

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The American Hockey League started requiring visors in 2006. The NCAA has long mandated full-face guards. Just about every minor league and European league won’t let players skate without eye protection.

It seems everybody in the world realizes the dangers except the NHLPA. Though its members are increasingly getting the message.

In 2001, only 29 percent of NHL players wore visors. It was 68 percent last season. Players like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos somehow manage with visors. But approximately 220 players still go out every game wearing only helmets.

Like Whitley, Travis Hughes of SB Nation goes down the Barry Ashbee road:

Helmets weren't much of a thing back in 1975 when Barry Ashbee's career ended, and obviously visors were non-existant. But we've come a long way with equipment technology and a general lack of stupidity about player safety since then, and the best talents in the game nearly all wear them today.

If we're lucky and that puck caught Marc Staal on the bone and not the eyeball, the Rangers defenseman may or may not choose to wear a visor when he returns to the ice. It's absurd that he even has the choice.

Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News explains where the wind’s blowing in lower levels about visors:

Of course, there's no use arguing whether an eye injury is worse than a neck injury or a concussion; they're all bad and all can have life-altering consequences. The USHL/NCAA initiative would look at three-quarter length visors, aka 'The Dany Heatley.' This model offers more protection than the standard visor, but still allows for spatial awareness.

As another example of moderation being the key, look at the concern over the past decade or so about the size of protective gear, specifically shoulder pads and elbow pads. Pundits have noted that players have become more reckless thanks to larger equipment, because the fear of injury from launching yourself at an opponent (and perhaps missing) is minimized by all that Kevlar and other space-age materials. How would the game change if players went back to the way Chris Chelios played, with hardly any shoulder pads at all? What if there was at least some middle ground?

Should visors be made mandatory in the NHL?

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