|Thursday, January 23
Few players willing to change view on visors
By Chris Stevenson
Special to ESPN.com
When it comes to the issue of protecting his head and eyes, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim star Paul Kariya sees the issue pretty clearly.
"In my case, my head is about stick-high for a lot of players in the league," said the 5-foot-7 speedster, who has worn a visor his entire career. "When I was growing up, I wore a full mask, so wearing a half-visor is nothing for me."
Even Kariya is a case in point.
He now wears a helmet with extra padding and a stronger chin strap after sustaining his second and most serious concussion when he was cross-checked in the head by then Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Gary Suter on Feb. 1, 1998. He missed the rest of the season.
"It's something I had to do," Kariya told ESPN.com. "I've got thicker foam in my helmet, probably 50 percent thicker (than in a normal helmet) and a better (chin) strap to hold it on. I don't even think about it anymore."
It might not be an issue for Kariya, but it is for the majority of his colleagues who are often faced with wrestling over the issue of facial and head protection.
But, in an unexplainable dynamic of hockey culture, the internal dialogue begins in most cases only after sustaining an injury.
For those outside the game, who see pucks rocketing around the rink at 100 m.p.h. and sticks being wielded more and more carelessly, it seems like a given players would take advantage of all the protection available for their faces and heads.
The trend is towards more players wearing facial protection, but it's hardly a stampede. An informal poll by ESPN.com indicates only about a third of the players skating in the NHL wear facial protection. The Montreal Canadiens lead the league with up to 15 players on any given night wearing shields (the Ottawa Senators are next with 11 players wearing facial protection). There has been a steady increase in the number of players wearing visors, but it creeps up only by about four percent a year. Those putting on shields are usually those who are forced to do so because of an injury. Even then, it's often done reluctantly.
The biggest complaints by players are the visors blur their vision because of sweat getting on them or by reflecting the television lights. (That doesn't seem to keep Markus Naslund of the Vancouver Canucks or Marian Hossa of the Ottawa Senators, both visor wearers and the top two goal scorers this season, from seeing the puck or where it's going.)
He has sustained what could be be permanent damage. He has to apply a gel to his eye now on a daily basis to control the size of his pupil. As the day goes on and the muscle in his eye tires, the pupil gets bigger and bigger, allowing more light in and making it more difficult for him to see. Another blow to the eye and his career could be over, but he is still contemplating taking the visor off once doctors say he no longer needs it.
"It's a real tough decision. It's difficult for me," said Hnidy, whose role as a guy who will fight for himself and his teammates can be compromised by wearing a shield. "It's harder for me because of my style of play and my job on the team. If it happens again, it's going to be even worse and I know a lot of people would say, 'that's stupid.' Maybe in the back of my mind there's a little fear of that happening."
Incredibly, Bryan Berard, who was blinded in one eye by an accidental high stick by Ottawa's Marian Hossa three years ago, said after the accident that he wasn't sure he would wear a visor upon his return, if he did. He did stage a remarkable return and common sense prevailed.
Hnidy's opinion on making visors mandatory reflects that of the National Hockey League Players Association, which believes the use of a visor should be a personal decision. The prevailing thinking is a rule making the wearing of visors mandatory will only be discussed as part of the next collective bargaining agreement.
"Our players are telling us they want the choice and we have to respect that," said NHLPA executive Mike Gartner recently. "We'd be overstepping our bounds a players' association or a league to mandate that."
The wild card in the discussion are the insurance companies which could refuse to give coverage -- or charge inflated premiums -- for those players who refuse to wear shields.
So, even while players like Landon Wilson of the Phoenix Coyotes continue to be seriously injured -- Wilson is probably out for the year after getting hit in the left eye with a puck Dec. 13 -- nothing is going to be done about facial safety for at least 20 months when the current CBA expires, unless an individual player takes the initiative on his own behalf.
Ditto for helmets with more foam to protect players from concussions and a rule requiring players to wear their chinstraps tightly to prevent their helmets from flying off in a collision (remember how the helmet of Donald Brashear shifted when he hit the ice in the Marty McSorley incident?)
"My stance on whether (a visor) should be mandatory is I don't think so," said Hnidy. "I think it should be the choice of the player. Pros are old enough to make their own decision. A lot of guys are comfortable without them."
He told reporters recently he would like to see the NHL make visors mandatory for all the players coming into the league now.
"Every player that comes into our league now has worn some form of eye protection in his developmental years," said Barnett. "I agree 100 percent that it wouldn't be fair to make the veterans do it now, but my feeling is, grandfather those guys with a clause, the same way we did with helmets. If we do that, then 10-15 years from now, when there's a full turnover of bodies, you'd have a league with visors. I think that's the right thing to do.
"We repair breaks and tears and rips and stitch lacerations, but the one area of the body that is the most difficult to repair and the most career-threatening is the eyes."
Hnidy will have to make up his own mind.
"It's easy for me now because I know my eye is not ready," said Hnidy. "If the time comes to make a decision, it won't be an easy one for sure."
Maybe, like Barnett said, the time will come when the decision will be made for the players.
Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.