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A Visionary Plan

Barnett wants players to wear visors, but the choice is theirs

January 05, 2003|Kara Yorio | Sporting News

Phoenix Coyote General Manager Mike Barnett is absolutely right when he says players should wear visors. It's the smart thing to do.

But Barnett is wrong when he says visors should be mandatory. The players can make their own decisions about protecting their eyesight and careers. Let these grown men make their own choices.

Save them from themselves? Enough already.

Barnett's proposal is noble and smart, but all it will do is cause him grief from the supposed purists, the old-time hockey guys, who already think the game is too soft. As if being blinded, much like suffering so many concussions that you can't remember your kids' names, is the manly thing to do.

Those same people argue that mandatory visors would push fighting further out of the game than it already is. Truth is, with all the circling and posturing before fights, there's plenty of time to toss the helmet with the gloves. It can become part of the act. And, for many, it is an act.

Barnett's proposal would require modification to the rules. Currently, if a player wearing a visor is deemed the instigator of a fight, he gets two additional minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct, giving him a total of nine minutes in penalties. A policy of mandatory visors would be a hassle, and it would find resistance at every turn, but give Barnett credit. He certainly knew what he was getting into when he made his proposal last week, and he went full speed ahead anyway. "Every player that comes into our league now has worn some form of eye protection in his developmental years," Barnett told the Arizona Republic. "I agree 100% that it wouldn't be fair to make the veterans do it now, but my feeling is, grandfather those guys with a clause, the same way we did with helmets. If we do that, then 10 to 15 years from now, [when] there's a full turnover of bodies, you'd have a league with visors. I think it's the right thing to do.

"We repair breaks and tears and rips, and stitch lacerations, but the one area of the body that [is] the most difficult to repair and the most career-threatening is the eyes."

It's all true. And Barnett knows better than most. His playing career ended because of a serious eye injury suffered in 1974-75 while he was in the Southern League, a minor league feeder to the old WHA. And now Coyote winger Landon Wilson, whose left eye was struck by a puck on Dec. 13, is fighting for his sight. Wilson has since had surgery to reattach his retina and spent a week in the hospital. Now he's waiting to find out what will happen to his career.

For inspiration, he can use Boston Bruin defenseman Bryan Berard, who lost almost all of the sight in one eye because of a high stick but is back and succeeding. Visors likely would have prevented Berard's and Wilson's injuries. It could be a particularly tragic story for Wilson, who had been hit by a stick in that same eye 10 days earlier. Wilson wore a visor in his next game back, but he said it was giving him headaches, so he took it off.

Teammate Daniel Briere suggested headaches might not have been the only reason Wilson decided to shed the visor. Briere says a player, especially one as big as Wilson (6 feet 2, 216 pounds), isn't considered a man if he wears a visor. Guys want to show they're tough. They'll give their left eye to prove it.

In the past, the league has had to step in to protect players who didn't want to protect themselves. Mandatory helmets, which hindsight shows are an obvious necessity, were pushed through after resistance by the supposed purists.

More recently, the NHL has started protecting players who suffer concussions. The serious and scary facts now known, it is less likely for a player to be sent back on the ice if the team knows he's suffering concussion symptoms. That was necessary. The player can't think straight, so he must be forced out of the lineup until the symptoms subside and he can make clearer choices.

But that's a brain injury and, in most cases, there's not a lot a victim can do to avoid suffering a concussion. Players wear helmets. They should wear mouth guards, too, but some don't. The reality is that nothing will keep the brain from sloshing in the skull when a player's head is viciously elbowed, slammed into the boards or snapped back violently by an open-ice hit. Yes, it would be safer and smarter for every player in the league to wear a visor. But it would also be a lot safer if the players didn't take running starts at opponents or leave their feet to deliver hits. It'd be safer if they didn't use their sticks as weapons. It'd be safer if they didn't lead with elbows to the head. It'd be safer if the game was officiated consistently and dirty players were handled appropriately.

Yes, Mike Barnett's proposal is smart and rational, but let it be the players' choice. Let's give them a little responsibility. It's their choice, their manhood to protect, their eyes to lose.

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