Chris Pronger sits at home, far from his team, from the end of his contract, and from what should have been a graceful final chapter to a Hall of Fame career. Life for a still-young multi-millionaire has become a search for “good days.” The end began with a stick to a visorless face.
Manny Malhotra is kept from playing by his own team, his management and friend worried about his safety as he tried to return from a serious eye injury without anything near full vision.
Ian Laperriere’s career ended on what was the quintessential hockey hero play: A fearless blocked shot. Except he inadvertently blocked it with his face, his unprotected eye suffering nerve damage that compounded concussion symptoms from the blow.
Bryan Berard was a rookie of the year and a rising star, then in an instant he became a young retiree, and eventually an unretired journeyman depth defenseman.
Al MacInnis retired after a full Hall of Fame career, but one that could have gone even longer, perhaps Lidstrom-long, if he weren’t dealing with the risks associated with an eye injury that forced him to wear a visor and a special lens in his final aborted season.
The late Pavol Demitra was “lucky” — he returned after losing half a season in his prime to an eye injury, though many said his play changed, became less assertive, for several seasons as he adjusted to a visor and the knowledge that things can change in an instant.
This is a column you’ve seen before, and you will see it again every time another NHLPA members joins the list of players whose lives and careers changed for want of a piece of plastic.
Last night, key New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who logs over 24 minutes per game, was injured in one of the scariest puck-to-eye incidents we can recall. (Scary too, that we must say “one of.”) His prognosis was unknown last night, but whether he suffered severe damage not the point: With a visor, we’d need not worry. With a visor, his family and friends aren’t on pins and needles awaiting word.
We can’t always be sure a visor would’ve prevented catastrophe, but we know they prevent a great deal.
Ah, but do visors prevent something else essential to the game? Hockey players are used to having “eyes” on the ice — full vision unobstructed by cages or visors — with the thought that they can react to anything. Usually they are right, but the common thread with all the eye injuries noted above is that they came on unexpected plays: Late deflections of the puck, unanticipated high sticks. It’s not the slapshot you see that poses the danger, it’s the hard pass you don’t know — you can’t know — is about to be deflected.
The names above do not represent an exhaustive list. They weren’t the first, and they won’t be the last, to lose serious portions of their career or worse after playing without a visor. This column will write itself again.
It’s understandable that the NHLPA prefers to default to the preferences of its member base. But just as it educates players on financial and nutritional health, it can surely do more to educate players on what a ridiculous risk it is to put their career and well-being in the fate of one bad deflection. Surely the player agents, who always have, ahem, their client’s best interests in mind, can do more to get compliance on this obvious issue.
But another CBA has passed — ironically, with “player safety” being a priority issue for the players — and yet here we are again. It wasn’t addressed in the CBA, but at least more players get their own hotel rooms.
The top players in the world routinely rack up triple-digit point totals while wearing visors. Even plenty of players who fight wear visors. It’s not a competitive question, and thankfully the percentage of players who go without them continues to decline.
But the holdouts are still out there, and one of them is a player who until recently was the most important defenseman on the New York Rangers.