The Player: Mandatory visors and politics of NHL player safety

Puck Daddy

(The Player is an active member of a National Hockey League team. Anonymous by choice, he will provide insights about life in hockey on occasion throughout the season.)

On Oct. 24, in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chris Pronger was struck in the eye with a stick. It was a scary incident, and Pronger's injury appeared to be serious. Luckily, the Flyers captain recovered quickly, and was healthy enough to not start his team's breakout against Tampa Bay shortly thereafter.

The Pronger incident, and his subsequent decision to put on a visor, only injected more urgency into a debate that has been going on for some time — or has it?

Pronger's eye injury was a hot topic that had been the subject of many pundits' articles and hot-stove discussions. Predictably, the merits of the visor as a safety tool were weighed against the player's right to choose for themselves. What surprised me, though, was the way so many of the so-called experts characterized the issue as an ongoing power struggle between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association.

Some of the talking heads would have you believe that, for years, the NHL has been imploring the players to agree to make visors mandatory, and that we have been fighting them tooth-and-nail every step of the way to make sure that doesn't happen.

Really? If that's the case, then it's also true what the media says about players being ignorant of the issues — because it's news to me.

The truth is this: Of course the issue of visors is something we have discussed as a union. It's something that we talk about once or twice a year at meetings, debating the pros and cons of mandatory visors (or more likely some sort of grandfather rule.) A few of our executive directors (we've had a few, you know?) have polled the membership to get an idea of where we stand on the subject.

Not once have I been told that the League is pressuring the players for a rule change.  Is that what the League would like the media and the fans to believe? I don't know. I've never heard Gary Bettman suggest that if it weren't for the players there would be a mandatory visor rule in place. Although in fairness, I do tend to tune out when he starts talking.

So what do the players think about visors? Good question.

A lot of you reading this might be asking yourself why in the world a player would choose NOT to wear a visor?

Don't worry, you're not alone. The mothers of all the visor-less players in the league ask their sons the same thing.

For some guys, wearing a visor feels totally natural, while for others it is a constant annoyance. I can tell you that I have played with and without one, and I found that it made a huge difference. Without one, I felt somehow closer to the action and more aware of everything around me. My peripheral vision felt better. When I first put one on I felt removed like I was watching the game from behind a piece of plexiglass (imagine that). I never found fogging up to be a problem, but it felt like a never-ending struggle to keep the shield clean and dry.

Despite the drawbacks, I recognized the benefits right away. It was amazing how many errant sticks, elbows, and even other helmets and visors I noticed clipping my visor.

When you first experiment with a visor, you pay attention to every one of those things and think, "maybe this isn't such a bad idea." My personal opinion is that, in a perfect world, it's more comfortable to play without a visor. Visors can be incredibly annoying but you can get used to them. You can get used to anything if you use it long enough.

The question is, why should we have to get used to it? Shouldn't we be able to choose?

A few years ago I would say that the players were overwhelmingly in favor of individual choice. While I feel that in general that is still true, I sense a slightly growing appetite for a "grandfather" rule, like we saw with helmet-less players.

Most guys think you are safer wearing a visor — it's hard to argue otherwise — and no one wants to see someone lose an eye. Some players rationalize that since the majority of players breaking into the League are choosing to keep their visors on, we should just make it mandatory for them from this point on.

One teammate told me that he thinks about it like a seat belt. Left to our own devices, we might not buckle up, but make it the law and everyone is safer. And of course, there was a time when the debate of whether or not to enforce the wearing of helmets was settled in the same 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.

American football is dealing with the same sort of thing. They are pushing farther and farther to protect the players from each other. If the NFL pushes too far, many argue, it won't be football anymore. It's impossible to regulate, or mandate, everything. As a result the NHL is forced to pick and choose the instances in which it attempts to protect the players from each other, or in the case of visors, from themselves.

I don't believe that, given the choice, players will always choose the least safe option. Look how many players choose to wear visors.  It should be said, too, that the League doesn't always err on the side of safety. Would anyone like to make an argument that touch icing isn't dangerous?

Sometimes there are unintended consequences to rule changes as well. At the beginning of the 2010-11 season all players were required to switch to shoulder pads with thicker, softer foam on the shoulder caps.

The idea was that the softer padding would reduce injuries in the event of shoulder to head contact. These new shoulder pads are universally unpopular with the players. They are huge, and I know many of teammates feel that they are so protective that they actually encourage players to hit even more recklessly. As a result, the new shoulder pads could produce the opposite effect for which they were originally intended.

I am told the League is now considering going to the opposite end of the spectrum and reducing the size of the shoulder caps. If they make them small enough, the hitter might be more conscious of the chances of injuring himself, and therefore are likely to play under control.

I do believe that in some cases the widespread use of visors has contributed to more reckless play — whether it's how players handle their sticks, or how fearless they are leaning into a bodycheck.

Does this recklessness outweigh the obvious safety benefits of wearing a visor? I don't know, but I would say probably not.

Does Gary Bettman envision a future in which all NHL players wear visors? My guess is that if the League feels that strongly about it we will know soon enough, when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires following this season. Along with anything else, the issue of visors could be on the table, though it will be a relatively small issue. If so we will see how strongly the players value their right to choose.

Will we demand to keep that right or will it simply be another bargaining chip to be exchanged for something else of value?

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