By Dave Eminian
Peoria Journal Star
October 16, 2003
PEORIA, Ill. – Eye-for-an-eye may be the nature of the game, but the ECHL is pioneering a new rule that could eventually change the face of hockey.
The 31-team, class-AA league, which has working agreements with 21 NHL teams this season, has mandated the use of protective visors for 2003-04.It’s the first such rule in professional hockey, motivated in part by ECHL teams keeping an eye on insurance premiums.
“If someone would have said to me, ‘You’ve got to wear a visor,’ I’d have said, ‘You’ve got to be crazy,’ because I grew up not wearing a visor,” said Wayne Gretzky, now part owner and managing general partner of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes. “But so many kids now, they grow up wearing visors, and I encourage the young guys who come into the NHL not to take them off.
“There’s no reason to. They’re used to wearing the visors, it’s protecting their eyes, and for their own safety and their own health, if I were them, I would keep them on.
“That’s just my personal opinion.”
Gretzky’s general manager, Mike Barnett, wants the NHL to phase in visors with incoming young players, much as the league did with helmets in 1979-80.
Dr. Michael Stuart, chief medical officer for USA Hockey, published a 2002 study in the American Journal of Medicine that shows junior hockey players without eye protection run five times the risk of injury than those who wear shields. But his own son, former Rivermen defenseman Mike Stuart, won’t wear one.
Players in the junior system in North America must wear a full shield or mask until age 18, when they can switch to a half shield. Most pros go unprotected.
“It’s like trying to give a kid a curfew,” said Rivermen head coach Jason Christie, who spent 11 years playing in the AHL and ECHL. “I didn’t wear a visor and I wouldn’t, although we respect guys who do. I paid with a broken nose – 13 times.”
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Bryan Berard paid in 2000. A stick to the face sliced open his eye, and he lost vision in it.
Last month, Montreal Canadiens forward Chad Kilger suffered multiple fractures of the orbital bone and bleeding in the eye after a practice accident.
The Canadian Ophthalmological Society says that from 1972-73 through 2001-02, there were 1,914 hockey-related eye injuries reported, among them 311 legally blinded eyes. Of those blindings, 302 were suffered by players wearing no eye protection.
“But don’t you think the NHL would mandate visors if they really helped?” said Rivermen right wing and sixth-year pro Brendan Brooks, a goalscorer. “It hinders my vision. I’m going to get hit more because I can’t see guys as quickly. My injury risk increases with this thing.
“Just like when helmets came in, the game gets rougher and guys get more careless with their sticks and checking from behind. Bet on more facial injuries and an increase in stitches this season.”
Peoria all-star Tyler Rennette, a 42-goal scorer and arguably the best player in the league, says he gets hit in the face enough to go through six half-shields per season.
“I’ve always worn one, and I’m not taking it off,” said Rennette, chosen in the second round (40th) in 1997 by St. Louis with a compensation pick awarded for losing Gretzky in free agency. “But it’s not right to tell pros they have to do this.”
And what about fighting? Enforcers with visors?
“We did it for four years in juniors,” Rivermen enforcer Craig Brunel said. “You just take your helmet off. There will just be a little more of a show.”
Said veteran Rivermen scrapper Trevor Baker: “Fighting will decline. Guys will have to square off now, and a lot of them can’t fight that way. And how do you call an instigator penalty?”
Gretzky says the visor rule is good for the ECHL but wonders if it will ever receive an NHL call-up.
As for its impact on fighting . . .
“You know what? The amazing thing about fighting is that fighting is more out of the game than people realize and know,” Gretzky said. “There’s very little fighting going on. You look at some of the great games we have now, especially in the playoffs, there’s very little fighting. It’s really not a big part of the game anymore.”