A historical review of eye injuries in the NHL

Eliminating headshots has been a dominant theme in the NHL for the past eighteen months, and while the debate rages on, there are other issues that have gone largely unnoticed. One issue that has recently surfaced at the forefront of fans consciousness is whether visors should be mandatory in the NHL.

These types of debates are not uncommon. In August of 1979 NHL commissioner John Ziegler announced that helmets would become mandatory at the NHL level. Thirty-two years later, it’s pretty hard to imagine hockey players playing such a physical game without a helmet. However, at the time, it was totally standard. Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Bobby Hull, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, all Hall of Famers who never played with a helmet, and there are many many more.

When Ziegler made the decision to make helmets mandatory, he wisely “grandfathered” the policy into the NHL. If you were playing without a helmet when the rule came into effect, you could continue playing without a helmet. In fact Craig MacTavish broke into the league in 1979 and played his entire career without a helmet, he retired in 1997.

In 1979, convincing players to wear helmets was a tough sell because most of them had never worn one. However in 2011, the same argument can’t be made for visors. In fact all players that break into the NHL grew up wearing a visor or full shield. For Junior hockey players, visors and mandatory in the CHL, USHL, and European leagues. For college hockey players and US Development team players, full shields are mandatory. Therefore if the NHL decided to grandfather visors into the game, there would be no adjustments whatsoever for new players coming into the league. They grew up with a shield, and they would just keep it on.

Chris Pronger’s recent injury undermines the fact that this happens relatively often. Let’s look at some recent examples…

Last Spring Vancouver Canucks forward Manny Malhotra came close to going blind in one eye after a puck deflected and hit him in the face.

Right around the time that Malhotra was injured, Tampa forward Vinny Lecavalier was also hit in the eye by an errant stick.

In 2006 Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman suffered a gruesome facial injury after being hit in the face by a puck. When he returned to action he played with a visor.

In the year 2000, Bryan Berard was on his way to a great career. He was the first overall pick in the 1995 NHL draft and he won the Calder Trophy in 1997. After being traded from the Islanders to the Leafs for Felix Potvin, he was playing a major role for Toronto. That all changed on March 11, 2000 when Marian Hossa spun and swung his stick directly into the eye of Berard.

Berard missed the entire 2000-2001 season and his career was in jeopardy. He eventually returned with New York Rangers but he was never the same. The former can’t miss prospect bounced between five teams over a six year period and retired shortly thereafter. The injury can be seen at the 35 second mark below.

Chris Pronger is the latest player to join a lengthy list of individuals who have suffered eye injuries while not wearing a visor. He isn’t the first, and he certainly won’t be the last if changes aren’t made. It seems somewhat ridiculous that hockey players can go their entire lives wearing a visor, and then take it off as soon as they reach the NHL. If the NHL grandfathered in a mandatory visor rule, they wouldn’t be asking rookie players to do anything they weren’t already comfortable with.