The NHL’s Preventable Black Eye

The players focused on the rock-hard object, whizzing along at 90 miles per hour. A player’s stick tipped it, causing a change in direction. The redirected object headed towards the face of a person only a few feet away – a collision inevitable. The object landed hard, dead center – on the face mask. The baseball umpire stepped away from home plate, took 20 seconds to ‘walk it off’, then resumed his job as if nothing had happened.

Yes, it is possible to protect player’s faces (and umpire’s, too) against hard objects flying at high speeds.

Facial injuries are a part of hockey. Errant sticks and flying pucks do considerable damage to faces, none of it deliberate. These injuries are common, serious and preventable.

Case Studies

All of the injuries discussed in this article occurred this season. It is important to recognize both the frequency and seriousness of these injuries.

In the San Jose Sharks’ final game of 2016, a deflected puck hit Marc-Edouard Vlasic in the face. He missed two weeks. Four months later, Vlasic still wears an extended-length visor, indicating his recovery is not complete. Combining the pictures of his swollen face and the lengthy recovery, it is reasonable to assume bones were broken.

The Sharks’ Logan Couture took a deflected puck to the face in late March. Two weeks later, Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News wrote about the brutal injury, including this cringe-worthy description – the inside of Couture’s mouth “looks like a collapsed mine.”

In Game 3 of their playoff series against Pittsburgh, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ outstanding rookie, Zach Werenski, took a deflected puck to the face. A picture of the young defensemen went viral, showing stitches and a very swollen, very black eye. Unseen except by x-rays, though, are his facial fractures.

Not Just Hockey Stars

Who loses with these injuries? The pain is felt more broadly than one might suspect. The owners invest a good deal of money into these players, hoping they can lead them to victories. Victories, after all, bring in more fans. The fans are deprived of seeing talented players. Players and coaches are deprived because the team cannot ice their best group of players.

And obviously, the player is hurt.

In the case of the Couture injury, it may be the difference in the series between the San Jose or the Edmonton Oilers winning. Couture had 30 points in the Stanley Cup playoffs last season (24 games), but returning from the injury, he was ineffective in the first three games of this series. The Oilers jumped out to a 2-1 series lead in three close games.

We know who loses, but does anyone win? Perhaps doctors and dentists, though I’d guess most would prefer not to see these sorts of injuries.

Curtis McKenzie of the Dallas Stars does not have the high-profile of Werenski or Couture or Vlasic. A fourth line winger, he took a puck to the face on March 30, in a game against Boston. He left the ice, dripping blood; his season over. Despite the optimistic tweet, the picture below explains why concern remains about the future of his vision.


A Solution

Both offensive and defensive players get in shooting lanes, though for different reasons. Both offensive and defensive players attempt to deflect pucks, again for different reasons. Successful hockey requires this. The root cause of the problem is not going away. Evolving stick technology enables even middle-tier players to rip 90 mph shots. Players themselves are getting bigger and stronger. Absent change, re-directed pucks moving at high speed will continue to injure players. The most serious of which are facial injuries.

The solution is the cage. Almost all NHL players have worn one. NHL players returning from facial injuries prior to complete healing often wear cages to offer protection against re-injury.

Players are not big on wearing a face cage for various reasons. I can accept a cage is not the best solution to the issue, but I can’t accept the current ‘helmet with visor’ is as good as it gets.

The protection is simply inadequate for today’s NHL game. If cages are not the answer, innovate something better.

Hockey Culture

Somewhere in the midst of all this is the culture of hockey. Too often, these injuries are worn like a badge of honor, with players praised for their toughness.

But who needs to see mangled faces to know NHL hockey players are tough? Players collide at high speeds, get rammed into rigid boards and get knocked down on to the concrete-hard ice. They take slashes, block pucks and, on occasion, bare-knuckle fight. Razor sharp skates have sliced skin and severed tendons. Like other athletes, NHL players collect their share of separated shoulders, torn up knees and broken bones. There is no player in the NHL whose toughness I’d question for wearing better facial protection.

While the game has changed, players have been slow to agree to adding protection for themselves. Visors only became mandatory for new players in 2013.

The current protective visor is much better than nothing, but on its own, inadequate for today’s NHL game. Fortunately, there are important interests to advocate for change. Owners want to protect assets that they are paying millions of dollars. Players want their teammates healthy because they can’t help the team if they aren’t playing. Fans want to see the best players on the ice, not watching from the press box.

If nothing else, protecting the players is good business.

Saving Face

These injuries are serious, reasonably frequent and very preventable.

Not every injury is preventable, but these facial injuries are. The baseball umpire didn’t miss several weeks of action. There were literally no consequences when the ball hit his face mask. No lost time on the job or lost teeth or mouth reconstruction surgery or painful breathing or loss of vision or facial fractures. The umpire’s complete recovery took seconds, not hours or days or weeks or months.

NHL players deserve better protection. The owners, teammates and fans are reason enough to do this. It will help if the players get on board; it is in their own self-interest.