Thursday, March 7, 2013

Visor debate 3/7

Had the chance to catch up with Eric Wellwood at Adirondack Phantoms practice today, and I asked him and a couple other players to weigh in on the debate that's dominated hockey talk this week.

Wellwood, if you've been following along, was called up to the Philadelphia Flyers and watched Tuesday's game from the press box, so he had a bird's eye view of the scary scene that unfolded when Rangers defenseman Marc Staal took a slapshot to his unshielded right eye. Wellwood said he has always worn a visor since his junior days, so seeing that would not change his opinion of the shields.

But he, like many other players, stopped short of saying the National Hockey League should require players to wear visors. I talked to about a half-dozen Phantoms at today's practice and they all said the same thing: a player should have the right to choose whether he wears a visor at the NHL level.

That's not really that surprising. That is the National Hockey League Players' Association's stance, according to this blog post from the New York Times. They would rather educate players about the dangers of not wearing visors, which you would think would lead more to wear them. But if a player still wants to go play and not wear a visor, for whatever reason, that should remain their prerogative.

The NHL wants to mandate visors, deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Times in an e-mail.

The American Hockey League mandated visors beginning with the 2006-07 season, shortly after Jordan Smith's career was cut short by an errant shot that hit him in the eye. Other minor and junior leagues had mandatory visor policies in place before that, and colleges require full shields for players.

There's an inherent hope that by the time the players reach the NHL, they would be so used to playing with visors that they just keep them on. Wellwood is in that category, and David Laliberte during his stint with the Flyers during the 2009-10. But then you get a guy like Brandon Manning, who plays a more physical game than those two, and he took his visor off the second he got a call-up to the NHL.

He knows full well the risks associated with playing without a visor. If he got called back up to the NHL, however, he said he would probably take his off again, even after seeing a scene like Tuesday's.

“I don’t know why they should tell a player why they can or cannot wear a visor,” Manning said.

Laliberte was in the same boat. He said he could not understand why players — defensemen, especially — would not wear visors and those plastic skate guards, given the amount of shots they block. They're not 100 percent guarantees to reduce an injury, a puck could still get underneath the visor, but he thinks it would reduce the likelihood of a direct hit, so to speak. Still, even though he personally would not play without a visor, he's not about to go tell another player what to do with his.

Andreas Lilja was an interesting person to talk to on this subject. He played 577 games in the NHL, all of them without a visor, but he said he has actually tried skating with one of them in recent summers. He cannot get used to them, though, so they've all come off before the season begins. It's a matter of comfort, he said, and the edge at the bottom of the visor affects his ability to see the game.

When he came to the AHL, he was forced to put a visor on his helmet. Same with Jon Sim. They both angle their visors upwards, so as to get the edge out of their field of vision. The way they do it, it's not really protecting either of their eyes. Lilja said a referee once told him to push it back down.

But what if one of the younger players came up to him and asked him about wearing a visor?

“I would recommend it, but I still think it should be every player’s own opinion,” Lilja said. “Obviously, you have to be careful. But I’m so used to not wearing one. I’m just stubborn, I guess.”

As players like Lilja retire and younger kids who have been wearing visors throughout their careers replace them in the NHL, that might drive the league's overall visor usage up. It jumped approximately 4 percent to 73 percent between last and this season, according to NHLPA stats.

But the NHL is still the only major pro hockey league in North America that doesn't require visors. Phantoms coach Terry Murray thinks that should change, and he gave a pretty compelling argument.

He said when he played, players did not wear helmets and padding was not really what it is now. Accordingly, you made sure to keep your stick down and keep it under control. That was a skill players had, Murray argued, because you did not want to get your stick up in someone's face.

Now, he's saying that skill has been lost because players are wearing "armor for protection now," compared to what they used to wear. Players don't really have to manage their sticks as much.

"I think he's right," Lilja said of Murray. "It is reckless. You should always be responsible for your stick. I understand sometimes you take a slap shot and you bounce off somebody and then you go up. It happens, but in corners and stuff you have to be careful. You can't be reckless."

Murray said he can remember a time when he was coaching in Washington, after helmets were first made mandatory. Captials defenseman Rod Langway never wore a helmet, because he was one of the current NHL players grandfathered in under the mandatory helmet rule, but his defense partner did.

"I can remember the helmet's being hit with the stick on this side and (Langway) would go there and he'd never come away with a mark on his head," Murray said. "He'd never get cut. It's just a respect."

Lilja spoke a little bit more to that point.

"Since I've been here, I've played 12 games," Lilja said. "I've got three sticks in my face already. It just proves, I think, if people are used to having visors, they're reckless with their sticks. I never hit anybody in the face with my stick. It happens maybe once every 10 years, because I know I don't want sticks high because (I don't) wear a visor. If I did wear one, maybe I'd get reckless too."

Lots of opinionated players on this issue. Manning said he thinks mandatory visors will eventually come to the NHL, but he hopes existing players will be grandfathered in like they did with helmets.

Until then, he wants the right to choose. It's almost like this is a political issue.

Lines and pairs before tomorrow's game against Springfield.

EDIT: I said I would post today's practice lines and I totally forgot. Here they are:



— MC.


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