Grisly injury to Penguins’ Cole is what OJHL is guarding against

The next time Ian Cole skates for the Pittsburgh Penguins, he’ll probably have made the temporary change to wearing full facial protection to protect his battle-tested mouth.

If only his helmet looked that way on Oct. 7 when he took a slapshot to the face from Nashville’s Roman Josi, which resulted in blood gushing all over the ice and some missing teeth.

The sickening injury – that a cage or the like could have prevented – left Penguins players nauseated.

And it’s exactly the kind of incident that caused the Ontario Junior Hockey League to mandate full facial projection for the start of this season.

“Most of (the injuries) aren’t from sticks. They’re from pucks,” OJHL commissioner Marty Savoy said. “These kids shoot the puck so hard and it’s moving so quickly now. It’s hard to get out of the way.”

After a couple years of deliberations, the OJHL passed the bylaw in June 2016 for the 2017-18 season. (The Ontario Hockey Association pushed the same mandate down to Junior B and C leagues in the province this season, too.) Savoy felt the decision was much needed.

Savoy would get emails from players and parents attached with photos of bloody mouths and missing teeth, dental repairs that cost upwards of $30,000. A particular message from one player was as simple as it was effective: “Mr. Savoy; when are you going to protect us?”

“That hit home for me personally,” he said. “They’re going to wear half visor if we let them wear a half visor. We just take that decision out of their hands and put the full visors on them.

“Knock on wood; we won’t see those kind of catastrophic facial injuries anymore.”

League chairman Scott McCrory had been pushing for the change, too.

A former forward for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, McCrory ditched his visor in 1987 – the moment he reached his first training camp with the Washington Capitals upon graduating from the junior ranks.

On his second day, he was nearly hit in the eye by a stick and immediately asked his trainer to put a visor back on his helmet. McCrory wore it for the rest of his 14-year pro career, which also took him to the now-defunct IHL and to Europe.

Then last year, while coaching the Whitby Fury, he witnessed the slapshot of one of his players break the jaw of an opponent. He was told it had to be wired in three spots.

“It’s no fun going to the hospital to see a teammate who can’t talk like a ventriloquist,” said McCrory, now the coach for the Wellington Dukes.

The 22-team OJHL is a tier below the OHL, and some players move up to that league. But many specifically choose to play in the OJHL to maintain their NCAA eligibility. Since the NCAA requires players to wear full facial protection, it only made sense to make the switch.

That was the rationale McCrory gave to the handful of his players that weren’t initially thrilled with the change. He also reasons that players have been wearing facial protection since minor hockey anyways.

“The older kids, it might take them a week or two (to get used to it),” McCrory said. “But, you know what? I’d rather say, ‘You have all your chiclets.’ That’s the way we went with it because we’re a proactive league and we’re making sure our kids are being taken care of properly.”

The decision has had positive financial incentives for the OJHL as well. Insurance rates have dropped considerably because teams no longer have $20,000 dental coverage in case players take a puck in the face.

Savoy said those savings are merely a convenient bonus to the more important objective of keeping players safer.

The commissioner notes fighting is also way down. While fisticuffs warrant a game ejection anyway, plus suspension for repeat offenders, grabbing an opponent’s facemask can lead to a two- to four-game ban.

The OJHL is the only one of the 10 leagues in the Canadian Junior Hockey League that has mandated the use of full facial protection.

Savoy would encourage the others – or any other junior or pro league – to follow suit.

“I personally saw way too many pictures of young boys – their mouths – and the plastic surgery they needed on their gums because the pucks just move so fast now,” said Savoy, who coincidentally was knocked out last February when he was hit by a slapshot while coaching girls’ midget hockey.

The visor use for incoming NHL players was mandated in the latest collective bargaining agreement in 2013. There are still some veterans that play without a visor because the clause was grandfathered in, although 94 per cent of skaters in the league wear one.

Yet a visor offers no protection to the lower half of the face as the Cole incident painfully illustrates.

Cole’s injury by way of a puck to the mouth is far from an anomaly in the NHL. One of the most impactful recent such injuries happened to Cole’s current teammate Sidney Crosby during the 2013 season. Crosby may have been at his offensive best until a wayward shot broke his jaw. He had 56 points in 36 games and missed the final 12 contests in the truncated campaign, causing him to drop to fifth in league scoring.

Legislating full facial protection in the NHL would have to be agreed to by both the league and the players’ association.

McCrory is confident there will be a day that’ll happen. But, he said, it’ll take years – if not decades. As Savoy notes, hockey players – and the sport in general – aren’t known for changing their ways too quickly.

McCrory played with Hockey Hall of Famer Rod Langway with the IHL’s San Francisco Spiders in 1995-96. Langway was one of the last players to compete without a helmet. McCrory also received some barbs from teammates after he had his visor reinstalled.

It’s unlikely an NHL player would wear full facial protection without it being a requirement, McCrory said.

“It all comes down to how badly the guys are worried about their teeth,” he said.

“You can take out your dentures and put them in a glass at the bar. It’s a great story. But what do you tell your grandkids?”