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Hockey fighting and the NHL mandatory visor debate

Mixing concerns about player safety with the quasi-legal assistance of fighting in the NHL is like putting marinara sauce on your Cheerios: Both have their virtues, but the combination is really hard to swallow.

We see it in the head-shot debate, as the NHL goes to great lengths to protect player's heads (because the brain is located inside the head, you see) while allowing (and marketing) fighting with rather miniscule repercussions.

We also see it in the latest flare up of concerns about player safety: The Mandatory Visor issue, following that frightening stick to the eye to Philadelphia Flyers captain Chris Pronger(notes) on Monday. (For the record, Ian Laperriere(notes) isn't sure a visor would have protected Pronger in this instance anyway.)

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren believes in mandatory visors in the NHL. Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke believes in Paul Holmgren, according to Mirtle:

"Visors should be mandatory for all defencemen, at the least," Burke said, adding that blueliners are at "a far greater risk" of being hit in the face by a puck because of all the deflections in front of the net.

"I'd want to hear the GMs out on the larger topic [of everyone having to wear them], but I think I would support Homer."

Both of these NHL executives are have been known to employ a pugilist or two on their rosters, which brings us to one of the major stumbling blocks in this player safety debate: Players that drop the gloves favor playing without a visor; ironically, they believe this is for their own safety.

From the Globe and Mail, Travis Moen(notes) of the Montreal Canadiens understands the risks of playing without a visor, and the issues with being a fighting forward that wears one:

While playing against the Ottawa Senators in March of 2010, then-Senator Matt Cullen's(notes) skate came up after he was upended behind the net and slashed through Moen's eyelid, eyebrow and forehead.  When he returned to the ice a few weeks and more than 50 stitches later, Moen wore a visor, but the experiment was short-lived.

"I tried it, but it didn't really work for me, it would have taken a lot of getting used to. … I also think with my role it can get in the way," Moen said in reference to his propensity to occasionally drop the gloves.

And what would Moen, who wore a visor in junior, say if the league were to decide that face shields should be mandatory? "I wouldn't complain about it. It would just be a matter of getting used to it, sometimes they fog up, it makes your helmet heavier, it's just a distraction. But then it would be like that for a lot of guys," he said.

For the Flyers, Jody Shelley(notes) doesn't wear a shield, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer on Tuesday that he chooses not to wear a visor for 'ease of fighting.' Other fighters see the lack of eye protection as part of the job, like Tanner Glass back in February:

"In my line of work, it's not really an option," said tough guy Tanner Glass(notes), one of only seven current Canucks to not to wear a visor. "I wouldn't wear one anyway. I'm old school, Don Cherry — Only Europeans and soft guys wear visors."

While Glass was a having a laugh here, there's no question that in the testosterone-soaked dance that is the hockey fight, wearing a visor is seen as a sign of cowardice. If you wear one, The Code states that you flip your lid.

From Kyle Clifford(notes) of the Los Angeles Kings, via the team's website:

And in an era when players are increasingly seeing the value of protecting themselves with visors, it's generally considered protocol for visor-wearing fighters to toss aside their helmets before the fight begins. Of course, not everyone follows the same "rules."

"Everybody has their own thing," Clifford said. "It depends on the situation. Obviously there is respect there. You've got to have respect. Most guys in the league do have respect for the fighting part of it. If you're wearing a visor, usually you will take your helmet off. If you don't, it usually comes off anyway."

Mark Messier traces this tradition back to the late 1970s, when a mandatory visor rule was implemented in amateur hockey: "Because of the shields and full cages, taking the helmets off became a way of showing respect and bravado."

Hockey fighting and the NHL mandatory visor debate

Again, we come to the confluence of opposing forces in the fighting debate: Tradition says a player takes off his helmet and shield before a fight. The NHL doesn't want players with face shields engaging in fights, issuing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for instigating a fight while wearing a visor. Former NHL pugilist Georges Laraque(notes) not only wanted to ban players with shields from fighting, but wanted hockey fights to stop when a helmet comes off.

All of this is to say that if the NHL were mandate visors for all players, it will affect hockey fighting in some way.

If the evidence tells us anything, the effect might be to decrease the number of fights we see.

In 2010, The Hockey News found that 65 percent of NHL players younger than 30 wore a visor, whereas only 45 percent of players 30 and older did. In other words, the younger players who came through every level of hockey wearing a visor continued to wear one as pros.

In 2010-11, the NHL's fights per game dropped to their lowest level since 2007 at 0.52. HockeyFights.com currently projects that number will drop again to 0.45 this season; that's creeping closer to the post-lockout pacifism that saw the percentage of fights per game drop to under 30 percent in 2006.

If you don't believe fighting is trending down, then we can at least agree that enforcers are going the way of VHS and PT Cruisers. The modern day fighter is the Travis Moen type, not the Jody Shelley type. The days of visor-less all-punch/no play guys toiling on the fourth line are over; question is, does that reduction in enforcers translate to a changing philosophy on face protection from those players who do fight?

Is there a middle-ground solution? Probably not. Tear-away visors won't work; what's the sense of eye protection if they can be jostled out of place?

If the solution is mandatory visors, then the NHL needs current players to sound off like Brad May(notes) did two years ago in the Detroit Free Press:

May is a proponent of everyone wearing one, saying that, "For 15 years I've said that it should be mandatory and should never be the players' decision, because you give us a choice and the chances are we make the wrong one. In saying that, I haven't worn a visor my whole career and I've had no problem with it, either. So I think when it comes down to it we're all men, we should have the choice, but for myself, if they tell me to wear a visor because I have to, then I have no problem with it."

Expanding on the issue, May said, "all I'm saying is, you give me a choice, there's a chance of me making the wrong one. I haven't worn a visor, so I'm a hypocrite. If it was mandatory, then there wouldn't be a decision, there wouldn't be a choice. Obviously when somebody gets hurt because they're not wearing one, now it's like he made the wrong choice. … That's like saying not wearing a seat belt, you're going to be safer. In some cases that's true. But, seat belts are there for the right reason, as would be visors. But in more cases than not, the visor is going to help, no question."

The majority of the NHLPA's membership prefers personal preference over mandatory visors. It's up to their peers to convince them otherwise.

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