Jan 18, 2001
The National Hockey League, once again, seems to be in the middle of a minor dilemma. A recent eye injury to Blues winger Pavol Demitra has sparked discussions about whether or not visors should be mandatory on all players. Demitra was the unlucky recipient of an accidental high stick in a recent game that nearly claimed his eyesight. This, combined with last year's similar incident to Bryan Berard of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has initiated media and fans alike to call for the added protection. Sounds warm and fuzzy, but such a change would certainly not eliminate these "freak" incidents and in the long run, would be detrimental to the game.
Eye injuries can be brutal and very scary. Nobody wants to see them happen. But for the most part, they are very freak and rare occurrences. Playing hockey means assuming certain risks. Much like standing in a batter's box and assuming the possibility of getting hit in the face with a fastball. Yet we don't see a public outcry for shields to be worn by the batter. The fact is that visors are available to any player who wants to wear one. But making everyone pay the price for a couple of rare occurrences would be an overreaction.
The visor is a welcomed addition by players who fear not only high sticks, but pucks, elbows and a variety of other possible dangers. However, the visor is only a help and not a cure. It protects against head-on strikes but lacks against anything moving in an upward motion. This is exactly how Bryan Berard and Pavol Demitra incurred their injuries - from the upward motion of a hockey stick that in all likelihood would have gone underneath the visor and created a similar, if not worse, injury.
The main problem with the visor is that some players suddenly feel "invincible" when they put one on. This feeling of invincibility brings even more high sticks, elbows, and checks from behind - the basic cheap shots that the league needs none of. Without naming names, there are a few examples of players who play mean, nasty, and sometimes dirty who, because of the visor, field protected from any sort of retaliation. Enforcers can do little to police the league when the deviants are hiding behind a mask. It basically boils down to the fact that the more equipment a player wears the braver he gets.
Probably the biggest argument against making visors mandatory is the negative effect they would have on a very important part of the game - fighting. Obviously if players are skating around with a shield over their face, the possibility of a fight drops severely, if not disappears altogether. Three very negative outcomes would result with the decline or disappearance of fighting.
First, the entertainment value of the game would suffer. Besides a great goal, few things excite fans like a big fight. Fans will leap to their feet in anticipation of seeing two bruisers go at it. Losing this unique feature that has been part of the game for so long, would cause hockey fans to revolt.
Second, losing fighting would mean losing one of hockey's greatest group of characters - the enforcers. Players like Tie Domi, Stu Grimson, and Tony Twist may have had trouble finding a job in a league where, because of visors, had very little emphasis on fighting. These players show fantastic character and are among the most entertaining in the league.
Finally, without the enforcers, the league will lose its self-policing aspect. Players, armed with a stick and faceshield, will have much less accountability to cheap shots than they would in a league with enforcers. Sure, there may be a two minute penalty handed out here or a five minute penalty handed out there. Just not quite as effective as having a Donald Brashear or a Sandy McCarthy acting as judge and jury.
The scenario of losing fights and enforcers because of mandatory visors is a distinct possibility. What would be a better course of action is for the players to take responsibility themselves to keep their sticks down and show more respect toward fellow players. This may sound like a "perfect world" scenario, but it is possible. I have been a hockey player, albeit in minor hockey and men's leagues, my entire life and have never taken a high sticking penalty. I know the same can be said for others as well. It comes down to self-control and respect of others careers and livelihoods.
If the players cannot accept responsibility of taking the stick work out of the game (which seems to be the case over the last few years) then it is up to the league to keep increasing the punishments until they do. This may have little effect on the freak injuries (like those to Bryan Berard and Pavol Demitra), but the fact is that there will always be some kind of freak injury, no matter how much equipment is worn.
The decision basically comes down to the players themselves. The game has been a part of their lives since they were young boys. They know about the dangers of the game and the possible risks associated with playing. And if they didn't know already, the recent freak injuries to Bryan Berard and Pavol Demitra have definitely opened their eyes. Hopefully the league will not jump aboard the "visor bandwagon" and will leave the choice up to these grown and very competent men.
This kind of (over)reaction is par for the course for the NHL. The instigator rule, in-the-crease rules, over-expansion, and overtime format changes are all examples of how the league has gone overboard to make changes to a game that for the most part is rock solid.
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