Soon there will only be a handful of players skating around NHL rinks with unprotected eyes. Eventually, the visor-less NHLer will be as rare as a 9-7 game.
The decision to grandfather mandatory use for all rookies starting two years ago has had a profound effect on how the issue of eye protection is viewed inside NHL dressing rooms. It’s removed a stigma and prompted several veteran players to don a visor, even a few of those known to agitate or fight.
Just 77 of the 715 skaters who have played a game this season have done so without a visor, according to numbers compiled by Sportsnet with the help of each NHL team.
That means 89.23 per cent are now wearing a shield – a dramatic increase which can’t be entirely accounted for by player turnover since the new rule was adopted. Consider that 68 per cent of the league wore one during the 2011-12 season and 73 per cent had one on in February 2013, according to the NHL Players’ Association.
Still more players are on the verge of taking the plunge.
Vancouver Canucks forward Derek Dorsett was forced to put on a visor during a game in Columbus earlier this month after he was accidentally kicked in the face by a toppling Brandon Saad.
Dorsett was extremely fortunate to escape the incident with only a gash alongside his right eye, which briefly lost vision after filling up with blood, and has done some soul-searching since. He became a father last year and wryly notes: “I guess it’s important to be able to see for the rest of your life.”
As one of the league’s most frequent fighters, he also feels less pressure than ever before to play without eye protection. He’s back visor-less right now but is seriously considering a change.
“The younger guys that play that way, they’re all wearing them,” Dorsett said in a recent interview. “Do I have four fights or five fights this season? I think probably three or four of the guys have been wearing visors, so it’s changing. It’s something that I’ve talked to the trainers about.”
There will be a ripple effect to whatever decision he ultimately makes. If it’s Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, there are only about two degrees separating everyone in pro hockey.
That explains why Shawn Matthias, one of four Toronto Maple Leafs regulars currently playing without a visor, recently started pondering his own future.
“It’s funny you just brought that up because the thought of putting a visor on actually came to mind the other day,” he said. “I saw a picture of an old teammate, Dorsett, and he had one on. It kind of blew my mind a bit.
“He was a guy I never thought would put one on and to see him with it, it’s kind of like ‘maybe I should start thinking about that possibility.”‘
By eliminating the choice for every player entering the league it appears that the peer pressure has been removed entirely.
There are already four all-visor teams – Montreal, Carolina, New Jersey and Minnesota – while a fifth, the New York Rangers, joined them when Tanner Glass was sent to the American Hockey League on Oct. 21.
Dale Weise was one of the last visor-less Habs before making a change last season – “too many nicks from the nose up,” he told my colleague Eric Engels – while Jordin Tootoo became the final Devils player to put one in during training camp.
“You look across the league and fighting’s down,” Tootoo explained to Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record. “You’ve got to be able to play the game, but it still happens. You can cut up your hands (on a visor), but you’re going to cut them up either way.”
Given how rapidly attitudes seem to have shifted, it’s hard not to wonder what took so long for change to arrive.
The short answer is that the NHLPA — taking a mandate from its membership — long defended the right of players to make their own choice. That changed after New York Rangers defenceman Marc Staal took a puck to the right eye in a March 2013 incident that proved to be a tipping point.
Three months later the NHL’s competition committee announced that a player had to have at least 25 games of experience already on his resume to continue playing without a visor.
Incredibly, it ended a debate that began nearly three decades earlier. A January 1986 story in the Los Angeles Times featured this lead paragraph: “What will it take before the National Hockey League requires all players to wear visors on their helmets?”
That story was about a dangerous high-stick which had hospitalized Bruins forward Charlie Simmer. It even included a quote from former Boston GM Harry Sinden that suggested the perpetrator, Buffalo’s Gates Orlando, made the mistake because he had grown up playing with a helmet and visor.
“Before this league had players running around like Knights of the Round Table, players had respect for injuries they could cause,” said Sinden.
It was a paradoxical line of thinking that was treated as fact by many inside hockey circles for years. Even when Bryan Berard took Marian Hossa’s stick to the right eye in March 2000 – an incident that forced Berard to sit out an entire year and severely hampered his career – the 23-year-old Maple Leafs defenceman defended the right of players not to wear visors.
Teammate Wendel Clark agreed.
“I’m all for less protection,” Clark said days after Berard was injured. “People play less carelessly.”
There was clearly a macho element involved, with players often using “visor” as a synonym for “dishonourable.”
Not all attitudes have changed, of course.
Veteran Colorado Avalanche forward Cody McLeod has been the NHL’s fighting majors leader for two years running and is unwilling to put on a visor despite facing mounting pressure from family members.
“Well, yeah, but I’m not going to do it,” said McLeod. “That’s on me.”
There are also eight players 25-and-under still not wearing one – 23-year-old Florida Panthers defenceman Erik Gudbranson is the youngest – and that group will likely produce the NHL’s final visor-less player.
Remember that Craig MacTavish played without a helmet until 1997 even though the NHL started mandating those using a grandfathering system in 1979.
You even still find some unusual cases like Maple Leafs winger Michael Grabner, far from a rough-and-tumble player, who ditched his visor last season.
“I know it’s dangerous and stuff, but I … just don’t feel so caged in,” he said.
Essentially, we’re on the cusp of the moment where societal attitudes change forever. The fact that it’s permitted for some is kind of like when smoking was allowed in a certain section of a restaurant.
The next generation will think it’s crazy it was ever allowed at all.
Matthias recalls joining the Panthers at a time when Bryan McCabe was captain, Stephen Weiss was the No. 1 centre and Nathan Horton was the most promising young player on the team.
None of those men wore a visor. He didn’t either.
In the case of Bruins forward Zac Rinaldo, who has gone back and forth with one this season, he didn’t feel like he truly made the big time until he could take the shield he wore in junior off.
“Growing up, I wanted to play in the NHL with no visor,” said Rinaldo. “I thought that was pretty cool. You know, a kid’s dream. So that’s what I did.”
Among the NHL players still not wearing visors it’s telling how many have had close calls involving their eyes. Virtually everyone interviewed for this article told an anecdote about something they’d experienced.
Matthias, for example, took a shot to the head while playing for Florida in 2013.
“You probably can’t see the scar, it’s right in the middle of my eyebrow,” he said. “That was a pretty scary incident. I wore (a visor) the rest of that year because I had to.”
The only time McLeod wore a visor in the NHL was for about a month after nearly having an eye removed in 2009-10.
“It was just a stick coming up, it was in Minny,” he said. “It caused hyphema (blood in the front chamber of the eye), pretty serious, and 30-some stitches across my eyelid. I had to wear a patch over my eye, and it was pretty scary.”
Rinaldo started experimenting with a visor over the summer.
“I got hit with the puck last year – 10 stitches – and I got head-butted, all in the same three weeks,” he said. “So I had 20 stitches all in here (across his forehead) for no visor.”
To chart the evolution of the NHL’s visor debate is to be reminded of numerous gruesome and largely preventable injuries over the years. Those suffered by Berard, Staal, Manny Malhotra and Chris Pronger jump immediately to mind.
Thankfully, there haven’t been any serious incidents during the opening two months of this season. It’s probably not a coincidence that more players are protecting their eyes than ever before.
Still, there are a select few who continue to put themselves at risk.
“It’s been eight years without one, you know?” said Matthias. “I kind of like being one of the only guys out there now. It’s kind of like a badge almost. It’s like I’ve been around long enough where I could not wear a visor.”
Once commonplace in the NHL, it’s become a novel concept. It won’t be too long before it’s gone completely.
Here’s a look at the youngest NHL players currently playing without a visor:
Erik Gudbranson, Florida, age 23
Andrew Shaw, Chicago, age 24
Cody Eakin, Dallas, age 24
Casey Cizikas, N.Y. Islanders, age 24
Ryan O’Reilly, Buffalo, age 24
Kyle Clifford, Los Angeles, age 24
Zac Rinaldo, Boston, age 25
Dalton Prout, Columbus, age 25