As he watched the replay of Marc Staal getting hit in the face with a puck Tuesday night, Washington Capitals forward Matt Hendricks reacted like most who saw it. “Ouch,” he said. “Hopefully it’s not too bad.”
But as he knocked on a wooden bench in the Caps’ locker room, Hendricks, who like the New York Rangers defenseman does not wear a visor, said accidents happen.
“Obviously you think about it,” Hendricks said. “[But] it would be hard for me to put one on.”
He’s not alone.
After Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson suffered a torn left Achilles tendon when he was cut by a skate blade last month, players around the league at least tried cut-resistant Kevlar socks. Caps general manager George McPhee even left a note for his players with a box of socks suggesting they make the switch.
But even as Staal’s injury knocked him out indefinitely and heated up the debate, players aren’t rushing to attach visors to their helmets.
“I still think guys should have the choice,” said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, who wears a visor. “If they’re willing to take the risk, then they’ve got to deal with it if they do get hurt. But it’s a thing that’s been around for so long, not even wearing helmets at one point, you’ve got to let guys have a little bit of freedom.”
Freedom is what the NHL Players’ Association wants, even as visors have become much more prominent in the past decade. According to the NHLPA, 73 percent of players are wearing a visor this season, up from 69 percent last season. The Hockey News reported just 28 percent of players wore a visor in 2001-02.
Ex-NHL defenseman Mathieu Schneider, now special assistant to NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, said the organization supports choice while educating players on the benefits of wearing visors. That appears to be how most players think.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d see them grandfather in some kind of visor rule and make it mandatory for everyone to wear a visor,” said Caps NHLPA representative Jason Chimera, who doesn’t wear a visor in the NHL but has in Europe and in international play. “It’s a personal choice; I’ve always had the personal choice to do it.”
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL has “consistently” held the belief that there should be a rule mandating visor use.
“The number of players using visors in the league has increased dramatically in recent years,” Daly said in an email Thursday. “It’s an ongoing dialogue with the players, the PA, our general managers and the NHL/NHLPA competition committee, and I suspect the dialogue will continue.”
The dialogue was rampant in October 2011 when Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger took a stick to the face from Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski. While he tried to come back, the eye injury and concussion problems prevented Pronger from continuing his NHL career.
Now Pronger, whose symptoms have left him agitated and often snapping at his children, said he wouldn’t mind visors becoming mandatory.
“I think guys can do it. I don’t think it would be an issue,” Pronger told reporters in Philadelphia, as quoted by the Courier Post in Camden, N.J. “I just think you go down a slippery slope if you start allowing wholesale changes to stuff that players have had the ability to do on their own.”
Adam Oates played 19 seasons and never considered wearing a visor. That would be different if he were playing today.
“I would now, yeah,” the Caps’ coach said. “Seventy-five percent of the guys are doing it now. So to me, that means there’s a lot more recklessness because of it.”
While Oates pointed to helmets and visors as one reason why players are more reckless with their sticks, he pointed out that Staal’s injury was just a freak accident. Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen let a shot fly that came up and struck Staal above his right eye.
The same can be said for Pronger, or Caps defenseman Tom Poti, who took a puck to the right eye in the 2010 playoffs that required surgery. Or Vancouver Canucks center Manny Malhotra, who resumed his career after an eye injury in March 2011 before being placed on injured reserve last month.
“That’s a thing with one of those unguarded moments. It just happens,” said Chimera, who is good friends with Malhotra. “I think you know the risk it can happen out there. Every time you see something like that, it certainly makes me think twice about it.”
Plenty of players think twice but don’t make the switch, though only five Caps players don’t wear a visor: Hendricks, Chimera, defenseman John Erskine, left wing Aaron Volpatti and forward Brooks Laich. Alzner briefly toyed with the idea of playing without a visor before the 2011-12 season but ultimately decided against it.
“It’s not worth it to me,” the 24-year-old said. “I remember the first couple of years I’d get a new visor every two or three games because I kept getting hit in the face [against] the visor. So I think if I wasn’t wearing a visor I’d look a lot different right now.”
Unlike Kevlar socks, which require moderate adjustment, a visor changes the way a hockey player sees the ice.
“I’ve always liked not having one on,” Chimera said. “You go for so long wearing not one that when you wear one it messes up your sight lines and stuff.”
Still, Chimera, like many other players, deals with plenty of outside influence. His agent, Allan Walsh, posted on Twitter that while he encourages his clients to wear visors, he believes it’s a choice they should have.
“I’ve thought about it, for sure,” Chimera said. “Your mom’s always pressing you, your wife’s always pressing you. But it’s one of those things that maybe a little stubbornness comes in.”
Having visors grandfathered in so that current players have the choice while those entering the league must wear one seems to be the most logical answer. That would solve the “stubbornness” but also ensure, like with helmets, a generation from now every NHL player has that protection.
“When you haven’t played with a visor for 12 or 15 years, it’s tough to put one on,” Alzner said. “It’s not a big difference, but it is a bit of a difference so I think that guys should still have the choice. Just make the right choice.”