- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chris Pronger is a physically imposing human being, but what happened last week reduced him to a man screaming and writhing in pain. The tough Flyers defenseman had taken an inadvertent stick to the right eye and was bleeding as he rushed off the ice and to the locker room.

Following the game, Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren made it clear that, if it was up to him and team doctors, Pronger would not be cleared to play again unless he wore a protective visor. The injury, which could sideline the future Hall of Famer for weeks, has reignited an issue in the NHL about the use of visors and whether they should be mandatory.

On Thursday night in Edmonton, center Brooks Laich - one of seven Capitals to play without a visor - took a puck to the face that cut his ear and required stitches.

“I almost wish I wore a visor, just because incidents that can happen,” Laich said. “[Thursday] night you take a puck in the ear. Maybe that’s two inches and it’s in your eye.”

What used to be sharp debate about visors and the stigma attached to wearing them has softened over the years. And while the NHL is the only professional league in North America to not mandate the use of them, 68 percent of players now wear visors - up from 30 percent just 10 years ago.

“I used to see it when I played in the ‘80s and the start of the ‘90s, when you wore a visor it was like, ‘Well, you’re not tough,’ ” former Capital and current color analyst Craig Laughlin said. “That was the big thing in the ‘80s: ‘Well, he’s not that tough; he’s wearing a visor.’ “

Not anymore - but that doesn’t mean players are willing to concede that visors should be mandatory. Laich, who is the Capitals’ NHL Players’ Association representative, wore one at the junior level and during his first year in the NHL but has “never really thought about going back to it.”

It would take a scary moment and bad turn of events to push Laich to that point.

“I don’t want to say it would take a serious eye injury, but, you know, sometimes you don’t learn until something happens to you,” he said. “It’s like a seat belt - that sort of thing. I like the freedom of not having any obstruction around my eyes.”

A serious eye injury is exactly what it took for Vancouver Canucks center Manny Malhotra to put on a visor after 13 years in the NHL. He suffered one last season that caused him to miss three months.

“I realized the common sense answer is to put one on. We as a league have to get away from that machismo attitude of all the things that go along with a player that wears a visor,” said Malhotra, who added that he tried unsuccessfully to wear one several times in years past. “Learning what I did last year, realizing how delicate the eye is, you only get one shot with your eyes. You can get a new knee, you can get a new hip, but with the eyes, it’s such a delicate and precious thing.”

Pronger saw teammate Ian Laperriere go through much of what Malhotra dealt with, though with a concussion added in, when he took a slap shot to the face in the 2010 playoffs. Laperriere put on a visor because as much as he enjoyed not wearing one, he enjoyed a normal life with his family more. The Flyers forward has been forced out of the game because of the injuries he suffered from that incident.

But even while reporting blurry vision five days after the stick to the eye, Pronger would not commit to wearing a visor. And though Malhotra views it as a common sense issue, he’s against the idea of forcing players to wear one.

“I always think it’ll be a player’s choice as to what he wants to wear for protection,” Malhotra said. “We’re grown men; we can make that decision ourselves.”

That’s how the NHLPA has approached the issue, despite outside criticism. Internally, the association strongly encourages its players to wear visors. But there are no immediate plans to push for 100 percent visor usage because a majority of union members believe it should be a choice.

Count a few Caps players among that group.

“It’s definitely a preference thing,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “It’s scary when sticks get up, pucks get up. But it’s part of the game. It’s part of the risk that we take.”

Defenseman Roman Hamrlik, listening to a discussion about the subject, chimed in simply with “No visors.” And it’s not just a “machismo” thing for most. Laughlin said at this level “you’re paid to perform,” and many players think visors detract from performance.

“It adds a little stress to your life when you’ve got to clean it all the time and keep playing. But at this level, these guys are so good, the trainers are so good that they’re basically spotless,” said Hendricks, who sported one in the ECHL and compared it to wearing a pair of nice sunglasses. “I [don’t] wear one for the sole purpose of my role. If I fight, I would rather have my helmet on and no visor than take my helmet off. You just don’t have that freedom.”

Players generally agree that there’s an “adjustment period” to wearing a visor. Malhotra found it well worth the adjustment. But Laich, while recognizing the value of that kind of protection, insists they’re not perfect.

“Visors can also be hazards out there. Visors can break. I’ve seen visors break and cut players. I’ve seen visors get pushed down and cut players,” he said. “I don’t think you’re ever going to be safe unless maybe you went to a full shield, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”

Indeed, the NCAA likely will move away from full face shields to visors soon, joining the AHL, ECHL and Canadian Hockey League in making visors almost as universal a law as seat belts.

Laich sees that happening in the NHL within the next five to 10 years. Laughlin points to kids growing up in hockey with visors now and the growth of use professionally as a reason why that could happen even sooner, possibly as part of the next collective bargaining agreement in 2012.

“When you really look at the big picture, it’s your two eyes and you should wear a visor,” he said. “I’m a big proponent for the visor because of the speed of the game, the way they shoot now, the follow-throughs, the hits - all that. I think it should be tailor-made for a visor.”

A mandate, though, could follow the same path as helmet legislation in the late 1970s, as it was put into place for anyone entering the league while current players kept the option. Laich would be OK with that loophole, maintaining he’d like to be grandfathered, along with anyone else who has enjoyed the choice during his time in the NHL.

For those who resist the trend of visor use, there’s more an understanding of comfort on the ice than reckless abandon. And almost all around, the hope that a bad bounce without protection doesn’t come with dire consequences.

“Knock on wood you just continue to be lucky and nothing happens,” Laich said.