Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Solution hard to see on visor issue

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

So the debate rages on across North America this morning.

Flyers captain Chris Pronger suffers a potentially serious eye injury when struck by the follow-through of Toronto forward Mikhail Grabovski, and suddenly the world wants visors mandatory in the National Hockey League.

Only the critics are forgetting one thing: do the players themselves really want it? And that's the only thing that counts.

The tenor of discussions of that very point took very telling turns last night.

Comcast SportsNet hockey analyst Rick Tocchet (who played from 1984-2002), when asked whether he thought visors should be mandatory, instead dodged the question and stammered some nonsense about how he never did want to wear one. But Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, in postgame comments, made it clear that not only would Pronger be required to wear a visor, but also that Holmgren thought Pronger would now want to wear one after going through this ordeal.

That remains to be seen, for even necessary change will not come easy to an 18-year NHL veteran who has refused to wear protection over his face for his entire hockey life.

Constant replays of the gruesome incident last night called to mind the more horrific occurrence late in the 1999-2000 season. That's when Ottawa's Marian Hossa took a nine-iron-type swing with his stick and connected full-force with Leafs defenseman Bryan Berard's face. The energy of the blow exploded the inner contents of Berard's right eye onto the ice in a viscous red flow. It was widely accepted that Berard's career was finished.

In typical fashion, reactions from all corners of hockeydom poured in. It's time to get players to wear visors.

But it never caught on.

Dozens of hits and misses have come and gone, all with the same reaction and not action.

Hockey players are creatures of habit, and you're not going to tell a full-grown man who has made his way in the sport since he could walk that he's going to change his ways. That's the only logical end to talk that the NHL should implement a mandatory visor rule.

Besides, the NHL Players' Association is too strong these days. There's no Alan Eagleson in cahoots with the league to grease both sides to get the helmet rule of 1979 passed without argument. And there are no doubt players reps' who oppose any imposition. That's the key issue: whether the league and the PA can work out a solution that won't ruffle any feathers. Good luck with that.

And why not use Berard's example as Devils' Advocate?

After all, the 1997 Calder Trophy winner only missed a little over one NHL season before returning to play for six more years. Berard underwent seven separate eye operations in just under a calendar year in order to correct his vision to 20/400 -- then the league minimum for clearance to return to the ice. He also turned in his injury settlement, totaling $6.5 million, which was his presumed going-away present for time served.

Of course, a decade on, any player who suffers this misfortune can look at Berard's example, just dip into the vast fund their contract affords and contact their friendly neighborhood ophthalmologist or eye surgeon for an eventual fix.

That's the wrong message of course, but making millions of dollars to play a game tends to cloud one's judgment no matter how young or old. I only wish I had the means to maintain such a blind spot.

So, in the wake of such stubborn opposition, I think the league shouldn't do a thing about it.

Let the players hash it out amongst themselves -- give them the power they've complained that NHL is taking away by changing the rules about fighting. Whoever abides will have a greater shot at survival. Whoever doesn't, assumes the risk of losing their livelihood. It's no time for Gary Bettman to play nanny when each individual locker room has 25 big boys who are capable of making their own choices.

On the local front, never mind that the Flyers already boast three players (arry Ashbee, Bernie Parent and Ian Laperriere) who have seen their careers ended due to eye injuries.

Never mind that Brian Propp nearly had his vision permanently altered due to a Lindy Ruff high stick in 1986 -- and that he never played another professional game without a face shield. Let Pronger decide for himself, and the rest of the locker room for themselves.

Forget that the league's owners and GMs are trying to protect their investments. Give the players the opportunity to forge their own destinies whether they can foresee the consequences or not.

And as it always does, let the talk die down until the next bombastic event turns the tide of debate somewhere else.

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