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Friday, October 7, 2005
Updated: October 8, 11:08 PM ET
Is playing without a visor really worth the risk?

By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com

Few would argue that, one day, eye protection will be mandatory for NHL players.

The only open questions, really, are how many players will be foolish enough to take the enormous risk of playing in the world's top league without a visor attached to their helmet until that day comes.

And how many will lose the gamble.

Mats Sundin
Mats Sundin escaped another serious eye injury on Opening Night. But if continues to play without a visor, will he be so lucky?

When Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin was felled by a puck to his left eye last week, an accident that left him sidelined for a month or more with a broken orbital bone, it once more brought into sharp relief the never-ending and rather curious debate over the use of visors in the NHL.

Sundin, who wore such protection when he broke into the league 15 years ago, was playing without a visor Wednesday night, when an errant shot by Ottawa forward Bryan Smolinski struck him in the eye.

That Sundin would find himself in such an easily preventable predicament was nearly inexplicable, given personal history and that of his team.

After all, the Swedish veteran had barely dodged a serious eye injury before in an NHL game, suffering enough damage that he briefly donned a visor. Moreover, in the past five years, the Leafs have witnessed a startling series of serious eye and facial injuries to key players, like Bryan Berard, Darcy Tucker and Owen Nolan.

Berard, now with Columbus, lost most of the vision in one eye after a March 2000 incident in which he was struck accidentally by the stick of Ottawa forward Marian Hossa. Tucker and Nolan, meanwhile, both required surgery to correct detached retinas after being injured in separate incidents three weeks apart in January 2004.

Despite all that blood and all that history, just seven members of the Leafs were wearing visors for the season opener on Wednesday. Indeed, 22-year-old rookie defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who has worn either a full or half visor, or mask, ever since he began playing the game as a young boy, picked that night, his first NHL game, to take off his visor for the first time.

If I take another 95-mile-per-hour shot to the head again, I'll do more brain damage than I already have. I don't like wearing it, but if it's going to prevent me from getting hit in the head, the eyes or the face, I'm going to do it. I don't need any more headaches.
Kyle McLaren on visors as told to The San Jose Mercury News

He planned to continue, even after seeing Sundin on his knees of the Air Canada Centre with both hands clutching at his face.

"I feel good without it," he said. "It's just personal preference."

To the outsider, this makes little sense. It also makes little sense to the league, which has been pushing the NHL Players' Association to make visors mandatory for years without success, a dynamic counter to the usual real-life situation in which trade unions lobby management for comprehensive safety equipment.

Mandatory visor use would have to be collectively bargained and was not included in the new CBA signed in the summer. The union has resisted, saying its members believe it should be a matter of personal choice.

"The union seemed amenable to giving the matter serious consideration, but indicated that there still existed fairly significant resistance from their membership," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "They wanted the opportunity to use this season to further vet the issue with their players before they would agree to take the step of implementing a mandatory visor rule."

Union officials, meanwhile, said team reps have been asked to discuss the issue with their teammates in the coming months.

Over the past five years, NHL stars from Steve Yzerman to Al MacInnis to Dany Heatley have suffered debilitating eye injuries in games, yet 60 to 70 percent of NHL players still choose not to wear face and eye protection.

Heatley, at least, was wearing a visor while playing for Bern of the Swiss elite league when he was hit by a shot off the stick of then teammate Daniel Briere and suffered an injury that left his left eye permanently dilated.

In a twisted argument, some have seized upon Heatley's injury as proof visors can't prevent all eye injuries and used it as an argument to decline the usage of such equipment themselves.

Most players currently in the NHL wore visors or masks until they entered the league, but many then took them off. Why? Well, the most cited reason is that face masks, either clear or wire, somehow impair on-ice vision.

A more unstated reason is that players believe it is an issue of manhood, particularly those who prefer a physical style of play and thus, at least to some, must be prepared to drop their gloves and fight. Players who wear visors and try to fight are seen as having an unfair advantage.

That this is akin to calling Major League Baseball players chicken for wearing batting helmets is logic that doesn't penetrate those who embrace this notion. Indeed, Los Angeles forward Sean Avery, gunning for early recognition as the NHL's moron of the year, recently slandered both French-Canadians and players who wear visors as somehow lacking in courage after teammate Jeremy Roenick was flattened by a clean check delivered by Phoenix defenseman Denis Gauthier.

"I think it was typical of most French guys in our league with a visor on, running around and playing tough and not backing anything up," said Avery.

Interestingly, when Gauthier challenged Avery to drop the gloves and resolve the issue Thursday night at the Staples Centre, it was Avery who declined to take the challenge.

Still, the anti-visor philosophy, espoused vocally on Hockey Night in Canada every week by commentator Don Cherry, is very much alive throughout the NHL and throughout North American minor pro hockey.

Last year, Craig Valette was one of only two members of the AHL Cleveland Barons who chose not to wear a visor.

"Some guys will think you're hiding behind your shield," he explained. "You lose respect from others when you play a rough and tumble style, but then have a shield on."

That eye injuries are caused as much by pucks as fists or elbows, sadly, usually fails to penetrate the thinking of those pro players who think this way.

Those who argue that visors make it difficult to see on the ice, meanwhile, also have precious little evidence upon which to base their beliefs. Many of the NHL's top scorers from Peter Forsberg to Jaromir Jagr, wear visors. Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, widely expected to be the top two candidates for the Calder Trophy this season, have both decided to keep their visors in their first NHL season.

Ovechkin wears his with style, adopting a Darth Vader-like image with his mirrored visor. Far from being a purely finesse player, he hit an opponent so hard in his first NHL game last week that the glass broke behind the net at the MCI Centre.

Crosby, meanwhile, said he decided to retain the eye protection after seeing Yzerman struck by a puck in a playoff game on May 1, 2004, an incident that left him with a fractured cheekbone and a badly scratched cornea. The Detroit captain was unable to compete in the 2004 World Cup because of the injury and has decided to don a visor permanently for NHL play.

"I have an eye injury now. I can't really afford another one," said Yzerman. "I wish that I'd had [a visor] on before."

Despite the fact so many top players are effective while wearing visors, there are those who believe they can't see the ice as efficiently with one on.

"I know it's smart to wear a visor," Leafs center Eric Lindros said. "I just don't like it. I can't see out of them."

Researchers at the University of Montreal, however, have conducted research that indicates modern visors don't impair vision at all.

"There is no statistically significant difference for visual acuity, color vision and sensitivity to contrast with or without eye protection," wrote optometry researchers Sheila Laplante and Sophie Pilon. "We wanted to know if [NHL players] were justified in complaining about this factor. Our conclusions are very clear; they are wrong."

There are veteran NHLers who have recently decided to adopt a visor, including Kyle McLaren and Brad Stuart of the San Jose Sharks.

McLaren was struck in the head by a slap shot two years ago and suffered a deep laceration to his forehead. He began using a visor, then took it off again, but in training camp this year appeared with a yellow-tinted visor to help with the glare of arena lights.

"If I take another 95-mile-per-hour shot to the head again, I'll do more brain damage than I already have," joked McLaren to The San Jose Mercury News. "I don't like wearing it, but if it's going to prevent me from getting hit in the head, the eyes or the face, I'm going to do it. I don't need any more headaches."

NHL teams are now also dealing with the very new problem of a salary cap, currently set at $39 million per team. When a star player is lost to injury, it can severely impact a team's cap situation, particularly teams like Toronto that are already close to the limit.

Sundin, for example, eats up about 15 percent of the Leafs' payroll. New regulations allow teams not to count certain injured players against their cap number, but that doesn't replace the player. If the team acquires a replacement by trade, that then creates another problem when the injured player returns to health and the cap becomes an issue again.

Injuries, of course, are part of hockey, but most eye injuries are avoidable through use of face protection. Canadian statistics produced in 2004 indicated that in the previous 32 years, 298 Canadian hockey players had lost the use of an eye while playing the game. None were wearing approved visors.

An eye injury to a top player, in theory, could cost a team a playoff position and millions of dollars in revenue, particularly maddening when a visor would prevent most injuries of this type.

Leafs general manager John Ferguson said he is in favor of mandatory visor use.

"It you could minimize risk, then I'm all for it," he said.

On Friday, Sundin says he expects to put on a visor full time when he is healthy enough to return to action, but wouldn't guarantee it will stay on.

"Yeah, I think so. I think I've used up all my good breaks," he said. "Definitely when I start playing again, I'm going to have to wear one for sure and hopefully I can continue it. That's my goal, for sure."

Eventually, all NHL players will likely be forced to wear visors, just as the league once mandated the use of helmets.

"It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," said former NHL goalie Ken Dryden, now a cabinet minister in the Canadian federal government.

"So, speed up the when."

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.