Pittsburgh Penguins v Colorado Avalanche


On March 5th, in a game between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal took a deflected shot to the eye.  This is old news- last month might as well be the 17th century in the information torrent of a hockey season- and, since it looks as though Staal will recover fully, is of little interest to anyone other than fantasy hockeyists and Rangers fans.  It did, however, add some color to the recent Board of Governors meeting, where the subject of a mandatory visor rule was again revisited.  Perhaps in light of Staal’s injury, certainly in light of all the other eye injuries that have befallen important visorless players over the years, the League came out with a strong statement in favor of mandating shields for all new players.

This statement received a wave of support from the hockey commentariat, among whom the mandatory visor rule has long been popular.  But, as always, there’s a catch- despite favoring the rule, the NHL also stated that they wanted to work with the Players’ Association on the issue.  The Players’ Association, as one would expect, promised only to put the matter to their membership for a vote.

Needless to say, the Association’s position was not popular among commentators. The PA has a history of supporting the principle of individual choice when it comes to equipment selection, and all previous votes on mandatory visors have reflected this.  If history is any guide, the PA won’t support the rule and the BOG will drop the issue.  Adam Proteau suggested, paradoxically, that giving players choice was evidence that the League doesn’t care about them.  The astute Ryan Lambert wondered why, immediately after a prolonged, nasty labor dispute, the governors are so willing to play nice with the PA on safety concerns.  If the owners are willing to f*&k the players for fun and profit, why not f*&k them for their own good and the good of the game as well?  Our own Glorious Leader Bourne noted that teams put all sorts of regulations on their employees, and contended that visors should be no different.  At the furthest extreme, Cam Cole waxed nostalgic for the good old days, when the NHL unilaterally imposed whatever rules it wanted without having to consult the players at all.  It would be so much easier, so much better, if the League would just command the players to protect their eyes.

Now, personally, I think all hockey players should wear visors.  More than that, I support a mandatory visor rule with a grandfather exception. If I were on the Board of Governors or in the PA or a member of any organization that mattered at all, I would vote for such a rule. I completely understand the frustration of safety-minded observers who would vote for such things, if they could, when players refuse to do so. However, the growing consensus that all players should wear visors seems to be transmuting into a demand that all players must wear visors, and from there into the belief that the NHL should enforce that “must”over the objections of the PA.  This transformation troubles me immensely.  For as much as it seems logical, intuitive, even necessary, the difference between telling players what they should do and legislating what they must do reflects a massive difference in how we conceptualize players as human beings and their relationship to the League that employs them.

I believe in mandatory visors, but I cannot support the idea of overriding the consent of the players’ representative body, especially in the case of health and safety issues- or, as we might call them when dealing with a regular union, “working conditions”.  We think of the Players’ Association as that thing that exists to fight the owners over salaries, but a major part of the reason it exists is to give players a voice on questions of how their employers use their bodies- the kind of training they might be subject to, the kind of medical care their entitled to, the sort of equipment they may or must wear.

Why should the players be allowed to choose against their own safety?  Because by the sheer fact of playing the game they have already decided to act against their own safety.  Hockey is dangerous.  It’s always been dangerous, it’s always going to be dangerous.  It’s twelve guys moving around a small, slippery space at very high speeds with knives on their feet and clubs in their hands; there is no way to make that activity safe.  There are always going to be acceptable risks and unacceptable risks and a fuzzy line between them, and the geometric proofs that locate that line will often need to be recalculated to account for evolutions in equipment technology, standards of safety, and style of play.  Unlike other areas of life, safety is not an absolute value in hockey.  It’s something that is routinely and even happily compromised in order to maintain the speed, physicality, and even sheer hockeyness of the sport.  Want safety? Play a game that doesn’t mandate clubs and knives.

That calculation, between protecting bodies and preserving the game, should be made largely by those who are most deeply invested in both: the players themselves.  As professionals, practicing a difficult discipline at an elite level, they are sensitive to the types of gear they must wear and the nuances of rules far more than spectators are, and that should be respected.  They’re also the ones whose bodies will have to endure the pain and whose psyches have to face the danger, and that should also be respected.  Both their own safety and the state of the game are matters of life and livelihood for them. They deserve, more than any of us, to determine where the lines should be drawn.

Consider the vast spectrum of risks in hockey and the many dire consequences when those risks come true.  You can list long list of players who’ve had their careers shortened or weakened due to eye injuries.  But you can, equally, generate a list of players who’ve suffered the same fate due to knee injuries, ankle injuries, shoulder injuries, hand injuries, back injuries, and on and on and on.  Eye injuries are bad, but they’re not so bad that the companies that insure NHL players- and presumably had done far more in-depth research on the severity of damage, cost of treatment, length of recovery time, and career-risk than any pundit- think of them as worse than any of the thousands of other potentially serious injuries that happen to players.  There is no doubt that a puck to the eye is gruesome and awful, but so is a puck to the jaw or a skate to the face- both of which happen occasionally and neither of which lead to calls for mandatory cages or kevlar balaclavas.  Make no mistake, every minute of every game, hockey is saying that it’s okay if somebody gets hurt in the name of putting a black disk inside a red rectangle; the only question is what kind of hurt.  The people who are getting hurt should have a say in that.

The fact is- and this is a hard fact to hear, but it’s true- that fans and commentators preferences regarding the rules and requirements of the game are ultimately aesthetic.  They’re feelings and arguments about the kind of hockey we want to see, the way in which we would like to be entertained.  This applies equally to the vicarious compassion of the safety-first crowd and the vicarious machismo of the safety-never crowd: they’re positions that cost us nothing to holdThe worst we suffer for being like VISORS ALWAYS or VISORS NEVER or LET’S PUT VISORS ON ALLIGATORS AND THROW THEM IN AN EMPTY SWIMMING POOL is the occasional nasty tweet or comment from someone who disagrees.  It’s not our quality of work on the line.  It’s not our eyes either. Ergo, it’s not our f*&king choice to make, no matter how much sweaty outrage we can work up.

Of course, as a society we routinely tell other people that they have to take certain safety precautions.  We mandate that motorists wear seatbelts and bicyclists wear helmets.  But these case studies are, if anything, further arguments for why the vote of the PA should carry the decision. In real life, these laws were passed by bodies who were elected by the people who will be subject to the law; the lawmakers will themselves be subject to the law.  It is, indirectly, legislation by the community, for the community, not legislation by a separate body over a community.  Therefore, if we are reasoning by analogy, since the NHLPA is the representative body for NHL players, the seatbelt argument implicitly supports getting its consent to any mandatory visor rule.

The PA is the body that represents players- not just for salaries, but for working conditions.  In general, most of us understand why this is necessary- the old ways that Cole so longs for were often hideously exploitative. The modern consensus, officially, is supportive of the idea that players should have a large voice in determining the policies and regulations to which they are subject.  Or, at least, that’s the consensus until we decide we don’t like their voice, which is apparently any time it doesn’t mesh with our paternalistic safety concerns.

The paternalism, in this case, is especially galling because wearing visors is such an easy case to make with persuasion.  You know, with words and arguments and stuff.  The same words and arguments that have convinced 73% percent of players to wear them.  The same words and arguments that players like Dale Weise are using even now to combat the perception that fighty players “choose” not to wear them. Even Don Cherry, oldest of the old school almost by definition, has reduced his anti-visor argument to: okay, wear them, just don’t turn into a dick when you do, a paper-thin position that’s half a step away from giving in completely.  The meaningful opposition to visors is small and getting smaller every year; it’s very likely that within a couple of years it will be small enough that a majority of players won’t feel the need to defer to it. This isn’t something that needs to be imposed by fiat.  We could do it the old-fashioned way- or, in hockey, the new-fashioned way. The- yeah, I’m gonna say it- democratic way.

By all means, hector, cajole, nag, caution, and warn every hockey player you see to wear a visor.  Present all the evidence.  Make all the safety arguments in the strongest possible terms.  But don’t prioritize men’s eyes over their viewpoints, nor their brains over their thoughts. Don’t belive that the strength of a position is in itself sufficient justification to impose it.

Comments (20)

  1. NHL Hockey is above all a business. Your logic ends when we reach the point that the spector of gruesome eye injuries starts to affect the possible reach and appeal of the game.
    When one of the top hockey stories of a month on Sportscenter is one of a player almost losing his eye in front of 20000 fans, it becomes the NHL’s business, not the PA’s business.

    • The NHL is not McDonald’s, and here, the customer is not always right. I’m not sure why you think your squeamishness as a spectator carries more weight than the opinions of the professionals who actually take part in the sport. I think it’s also important to note how the history of contact sports, as well as motor vehicle use, demonstrates that as we add more safety equipment we also increase reckless behavior. Having played football, I can personally attest to this. More safety equipment is great and all, but stop acting like the world is so simple that you could make it operate better if only you had all the puppet strings.

    • The NHL, in its inaction, disagrees with you.

      Or, re-read the third paragraph.

      • Because they haven’t wanted to pick a fight with PA over it. And as in so many things, they are inept and wrong.

        This is not exclusively a safety issue – it clearly IS a safety issue, but it is also a business issue.

        Take bench clearing brawls for example. Bench clearing brawls never hurt anyone, and were actually quite popular. But the NHL effectively eliminated them. Why? Because they didn’t want that to be part of the image of hockey. It was bad for their business.

        The regular occurrence of horrific eye injuries is also bad for hockey as a business. Not because an eye injury is worse than a brain injury, but simply because, as is evidenced by the ‘panic’ that erupts in social media when it happens, human beings are squeamish about their eyes. We are all fundamentally aware of how vulnerable we are, and we have a very negative reaction.

        Having preventable horrific injury as part of your ‘product’ is a terrible idea. Having it as part of the game is bad business. It IS that simple. Visors should be grandfathered.

        • I’m really not sure that you actually read this article.

          Like go read the two paragraphs.

          You sound like your opinion matters more than the people putting their bodies, including their eyes, in front of 100 mph slapshots.

          • the LAST two paragraphs.

          • Yes I did. Thanks for trying to make it personal. Maybe you should actually read my commentary. I’m not disagreeing with anything Ellen said. What I’m saying is that she missed an important point. There may be aspects of paternalism to the commentary out there, but more importantly than that, it’s a business decision that needs to be made by a 3 billion dollar business. The NHL should override all of this and simply dictate it, the same way they did with higher glass around the boards, and netting behind the nets, and bench clearing brawls. Not for safety, but because it’s what is right for the broad appeal of the game..

        • As I said below:

          Yet for some reason, the current business owners disagree with your assessment.

          Perhaps they have a more subtle view of it – players may play slightly better without visors leading to better team results & revenue, insurance covers the salary of lost players, there are always up & coming players to replace injured ones, and probably a bunch more reasons that are not obvious or apparent to non-owners.

  2. Oh good grief.

    Every hockey player coming into the NHL today has worn a visor (or more), just as he’s worn a helmet. Grandfather them in and be done with it.

  3. You came back with a home run on this one. By far my favorite of all your editorials. It can be really easy to forget in our age of tweets and blogs and reactionary social media that issues like these are human issues with human beings behind them and we outsiders don’t get to text-vote and compel them to do as we please like it’s American Idol. A fine balance struck between your concern for safety and your value of individual choice – not just as a catch phrase, but as something important. And those last two sentences…. were perfect. “Don’t prioritize men’s eyes over their viewpoints, nor their brains over their thoughts.” How could it possibly be stated any better than that?

  4. I think you should get into politics. You’d be better than anyone currently in that line of work.

    “It’s not our eyes either. Ergo, it’s not our f*&king choice to make, no matter how much sweaty outrage we can work up.”

    “Don’t belive that the strength of a position is in itself sufficient justification to impose it.”

    Seriously, you rock Ellen.

  5. Nope!

    If I’m an NHL owner (and, god willing, one day…), and I’m willing to pay someone millions of dollars to play a game because I think I can make a profit off of their ability to play that game, I have every right – and in many cases, an obligation to shareholders – to protect that investment. If the guy people are giving me money to see play is gone due to a preventable injury, and the fans lose interest, that’s. caviar out of MY kids’ mouths.
    Furthermore, I’m paying you millions of dollars to play a game. If I order you to wear a pink tutu, that’s what’s gonna happen – or you find someone else to cough up the bucks.

    You want players’ choices to be respected? They are respected, by a player’s free choice to sign a contract to play in a league that mandates visors. No one’s telling them to go into a coal mine here, so save your pity or outrage at the lack of democracy.

    The grandfather clause takes care of the current players who might have a hard time adjusting – upcoming players will just have the New Normal to live with.

    • I realize that sounds a bit harsh, and I’m certainly not advocating a return to the bad old days of indentured players playing for pittances.
      I’m just saying that owners have a real, vested interest in protecting players from themselves (plus the general humanitarian interest in not wanting to see young men lose their sight) and they’re within their rights to change how the NHL game is played in order to protect everyone’s interests.

    • Yet for some reason, the current owners disagree with their assessment.

      Perhaps they have a more subtle view of it – players may play slightly better without visors leading to better team results & revenue, insurance covers the salary of lost players, there are always up & coming players to replace injured ones, and probably a bunch more reasons that are not obvious or apparent to non-owners.

    • If an individual owner feels the need to mandate his employees wear protective equipment, they are more than welcome to make that a contract stipulation when negotiating salary and term.

  6. Why not wear cages?
    You grow up playing the game with your face behind bars and it does not impact how well you play in any way while providing even better protection.

    • Honestly, put cages on NHLer’s and watch concussions go up. Players barely wear helmets properly, imagine them with a lose cage that then slams into their jaw on a good hard check.

      Combine with the reduction in mouth guard usage (which may or may not reduce concussions depending on which resarch you believe) and your adding impact protection (which, for the most part, heals. Broken Jaws, lost teeth, cuts will all heal. Eyes are the exception) at the cost of long term injuries that can seriously impact players lives (concussions)

      • To add to my comment regarding loose cages – look at an NFL facemask. It is tight and fitted to the face. On a hit, it does not move.

        Compare this to a hockey cage, which most players at most levels wear FAR too loose, with an inch or more of travel.

    • I’ve always wondered why this is never even brought into the discussion. They wear cages all through high school and college – why not just continue? The “it impedes my vision” argument is pretty useless if you’ve only ever played the game wearing one.

      I play low level women’s rec hockey and have to wear a cage and I would never get on the ice for a game without one. I’ve taken high sticks to the face that clanged off the cage enough times to be very, very grateful for it.

  7. Some perspective from the Beer Leagues…

    I think 60 minutes of Beer League with out visors is far more dangerous than 600 minutes of NHL hockey. Most of the times I have been cracked in the chops with a stick has been skating by guys who have fallen down, or someone else has taken them out, and up goes their stick into my grille. Shots are not travelling at 90, but some of these clowns wind up and have not the slightest clue if it is going low or high, right or left, so beware!
    IMHO, there is NO reason whatsoever not to wear visor/cage in Beer League and in my circles, it is only about 40% of players that wear them. If we really cared about saving eyeballs, orbital bones and chicklets, cages, etc. should be mandatory for all non NHL players. Let the NHL guys decide for themselves-they have careers and fat checks (cheques) to risk, we don’t.

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