It was mid-July. Marc Staal was messing around on the ice with his brothers Jared and Jordan at home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when he noticed …
He wasn’t straining to see. He wasn’t consciously tracking the puck, processing its location and speed, judging his depth perception. For the first time since he took a slapshot to his unprotected right eye four months before – a sickening, last-straw moment in the NHL visor debate – he wasn’t thinking about his vision. He was just playing hockey again.
“I was kind of like, ‘All right, I’m back,’ ” Staal said. “I felt a lot more comfortable about where I was going to be.”
Staal said he is normal now. Not only is he healthy, he was healthy enough early enough in the summer to get into top shape for training camp. He knows he needs to test himself in practices and scrimmages and games, but he can’t wait. He has a fresh start, and so do the New York Rangers under new coach Alain Vigneault.
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“It doesn’t seem to be bothering him at all,” said Jordan Staal. “I’ve watched him on the ice, and it seems he’s the same old Marc. I don’t really think about him other than to see the visor on him. That’s the only thing that looks different. He seems confident and ready to go.”
He seems relieved. He’s glad more current NHLers are now choosing to wear visors – including his brothers Eric and Jordan, centermen for the Carolina Hurricanes – and all incoming NHLers will now be required to wear them. He knows a happy ending does not erase a sad story.
“It was a scary thing,” Marc Staal said. “You don’t know how it’s going to turn out when something like that happens.”
* * * * *
March 5. Madison Square Garden. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen wound up and fired inside the blue line. The puck deflected off a stick and rose sharply. Standing in front and to the left of the New York net, Staal had a split-second to react. In other words, he had no chance. He jumped reflexively as the puck made impact. His stick went flying and his hands covered his face in mid-air.
“When I hit the ice,” Staal said, “I knew it was bad.”
Staal kicked his legs. He kicked his stick. He writhed in pain. His threw off his gloves and grabbed his right eye as teammates stood around helplessly and a trainer ran out and coach John Tortorella looked up at the videoboard and blood dripped onto the ice. Eventually, Staal got up. Hunched over, hand on his eye, he skated straight to the dressing room.
The story gets worse before it gets better.
Staal lay back on a chair. If not for a light overhead, he would have been in total darkness. He couldn’t even see the man examining him.
“I couldn’t see a thing, and that was pretty scary,” Staal said. “I could see one dot of light. I could see one light bulb. But the guy’s hand would be in front of my face, and there would be nothing there.”
An eye doctor came that night and ran some tests. A good sign: The optic nerve was still attached. Later, the doctor said there was a tear in his retina and a fracture in his orbital bone. It was uncertain whether the eye would ever return to 100 percent, but there would be some healing. In time, Staal would see again.
The first week-and-a-half was especially difficult. Staal would just sit there, he said, “kind of hoping a little bit comes back.”
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Slowly, little by little, his vision did come back. He would reach for an object – say, a cup – and it would be where he thought it was. He would walk down the street, and something he didn’t see yesterday he would see today. He would pick up something in his peripheral vision.
“It took about a month, a month-and-a-half, to where I was getting back to … you know …”
Staal hesitated to say it.
“To be not, like, blind.”
Staal did nothing for five weeks and lost 10 pounds. When he returned to practice, he struggled because the tear would cause the pressure in his eye to spike and dip. He would become disoriented. His eye would cramp.
He returned May 6 for Game 3 of the Rangers’ first-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals, but he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t just jumping into a game; he was jumping into a playoff game. His depth perception was off, so he could not compute the chaos around him – where bodies were, where the puck was flying. He was overwhelmed.
“I just wasn’t comfortable,” Staal said. “I played the game. I could have kept playing, I think. But I wouldn’t have been any help to the team, and I would have been risking my health playing even more. … My brain wasn’t adapted to it. I just needed some more time for it to come around.”
The day after the game, Staal had cramping, dizziness, a headache. He didn’t play again. Doctors constantly changed his medications. After the Rangers were eliminated in the second round, he told reporters the eye would probably never be 100 percent but that once it settled down, the injury would not be an issue.
He also said he had voted in an NHL Players’ Association poll to make visors mandatory – immediately, for everyone.
* * * * *
Marc Staal is a 6-foot-4, 207-pound star defenseman from a famous Canadian hockey family. He was the 12th overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft. He is a key member of the Rangers. He could be one of three Staal brothers, along with Eric and Jordan, to make Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics.
But it doesn’t matter how big you are, how talented you are or how much hockey you have in your genes. The game is too hard and fast, and some parts of the body are too fragile. Staal missed almost half the 2011-12 season because of a concussion. Then he missed more than half of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season because of an eye injury.
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For years, people have debated visors in the NHL, the way they once debated helmets. The NHL has been in favor of them. The NHLPA has recommended them and more members have chosen to wear them in recent years, though the majority still favored freedom of choice – until this.
In the wake of Staal’s injury – not to mention Chris Pronger’s career-ending eye injury and concussion, not to mention so many others – the NHLPA polled its membership again. For the first time, the players supported a grandfathered visor rule, and so all incoming NHLers must wear visors starting this season. They won’t complain about having to adjust, because they were required to wear at least a visor at lower levels and never played without one.
Veteran NHLers still have a choice. But the Staal brothers will be wearing visors. So will guys like Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi, the shot-blocking tough guy, who didn’t want to adjust during last season but will try to at the start of this season.
Marc Staal is back. It’s a shame he had to come back at all.
“The first thing when I got hit, I was lying on the ice, I was like, ‘Why didn’t I have a visor on?’ ” Staal said. “It’s just so stupid, when you think back on it.”
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