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Anderson on the web: Perhaps NHL is finally ready for mandatory visors

Friday, December 27, 2002

PHOENIX--The idea is probably about as popular as mandatory seat belts, a ban on drivers using cell phones or smoke-free bars.

Still, Phoenix Coyotes General Manager Mike Barnett is onto something. He proposes that the NHL phase in the mandatory use of visors to protect players' eyes.

"We repair breaks and tears and rips and stitch lacerations, but the one area of the body that's the most difficult to repair and the most career-threatening are the eyes," Barnett told the Arizona Republic.

Coyotes forward London Wilson's season and career - and, more importantly, his sight -- are in jeopardy because of an eye injury earlier this month. He caught a puck in the left eye during a home game against the Washington Capitals on, of all things, Friday the 13th.

The visors idea is self-serving coming from Barnett, whose own hockey career ended because of an eye injury and whose livelihood now depends partly on his players remaining healthy enough to play. But it also would serve the game well.

Barnett's idea is to grandfather in all current NHL players, the same way helmets were introduced to the league as mandatory equipment more than 20 years ago. Once the rule is adopted, only those players entering the league for the first time would be required to wear a protective visor or comparable equipment attached to their helmets.

"Then, 10 to 15 years from now, you'd have a league with visors," Barnett said.

There would be protests, of course, even though some sort of face protection, such as visors or cages, are required at youth and amateur levels of hockey.

The idea of making eye protection a standard part of an NHL uniform is not new. It arises every time there is a serious or gruesome eye injury, every time fans turn away from a sight such as Wilson lying on the ice with blood spurting out of his eye.

Wilson has had surgery on the eye twice, and doctors don't know how much his vision will return or even whether it will. He said this week that he can make out only shapes and colors with his left eye. It probably wouldn't be that way if a rule about visors had been passed 10 years ago.

Hockey players, just like anyone else, resist change. When helmets came into vogue, there were complaints - they were too hot, fans couldn't easily recognize their favorite players, they would encourage more violence on the ice. But everyone got used to them.

Most players don't wear visors unless they've already had a close call, and their reasons for leaving their eyes vulnerable to pucks, stick blades or even elbows traditionally have been that tough guys don't need visors, or that visors limit their vision when they get covered in condensation or sweat or because of distortion.

It's a cruel irony that many NHL players don't want to add eye protection because they're concerned the equipment will hinder their vision on the ice.

If the NHL was on top of things - I'll wait while you stop laughing -- it would have addressed the issue in an intelligent way years ago. It should commission studies to find some sort of addition to helmets that can protect players' eyes with little if any affect on vision during games. Maybe there's some sort of high-tech mesh or other material that won't fog up or cause distortion. Or maybe some sort of strong, lightweight goggles could be designed specifically for hockey.

That would be asking a lot of the league honchos.

The NHL has botched so many things that fans should think about the sport of hockey as a separate entity from the league that employs the world's top players.

The folks at the NHL are the ones who want to increase hockey's popularity and fan base and yet use a silly system that rewards a team for an overtime loss with a point and makes potential fans try to figure out win-loss records that extend to four numbers with three hyphens. They are the ones who have been slower than a glacier to adopt - or enforce - rules that emphasize the skill and speed of the sport over the thuggery.

Protective gear has become so standard in contact sports as to almost become invisible. Could you picture a football player without a pads and a facemask? When was the last time football players complained about those or tried to change the rules to make safety gear optional?

NHL goaltenders wouldn't be caught in the net without full head protection. The same things that can hurt them can also hurt forwards and defensemen.

There should come a time when there are no more stories like Landon Wilson's. Even if it means making hockey players do what is good for them.

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