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For their own good
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Risking their eyesight
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
Published October 22, 2007
[Dirk Shadd | Times]
The Lightning's Chris Gratton, who was playing without a visor, covers his eye after a high stick scratched his cornea.
Consider the odd circumstance of Michael Stuart, chief medical officer for USA Hockey, and his son Mark.
Stuart, co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at the world famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is a long-time advocate of face shields for hockey players. Mark is a 23-year-old Bruins defenseman, who plays ... without a visor.
"I don't know. I just feel more comfortable without one," Mark said before Thursday's game with the Lightning. "It's something I think about, though. I'm well aware of the risks."
The debate over visors in the NHL, believed to be the last major league in the world that doesn't mandate some kind of facial protection, is not new. But it gained traction this season with several high-profile injuries of unprotected players.
Devils defenseman Colin White could be out for the season after a Sept. 19 practice incident in which a puck deflected into his right eye, broke his nose and blurred his vision.
Tampa Bay's Chris Gratton is playing, now with a visor, but still has blurry vision in his right eye from being clipped in the cornea by an errant stick blade in a preseason game. Lightning star Vinny Lecavalier needed three stitches in his right eyelid when he was clipped.
This at a time visor manufacturers say their product has never been more sophisticated and addresses players' main complaints of distorted vision and moisture buildup with "optically correct" designs and clear coating to reduce fog.
Scott Donaldson, a pro team sales rep for manufacturer I-Tech, said 275 to 300 of the NHL's roughly 640 skaters, including 10 on the Lightning, wear visors. That's up from a 2005-06 Hockey News survey that put it at 244.
"It's the smart thing to do," Lecavalier said. "I've tried it a few times. I don't know what to say. I should wear it, but I just don't like it."
'A personal choice'
NHL vice president Bill Daly said the league wants to make visors mandatory but cannot without the consent of the players' association, and that doesn't seem likely.
"The majority of our members feel that wearing a visor is a matter of individual preference," its spokesman, Jonathan Weatherdon, said in an e-mail. "We respect and support their right to make a personal choice."
Personal choice was the buzz in 1979 by those who did not like the league mandating all incoming players wear helmets. The difference, players say, is visors, because of where they are worn, can more affect performance.
That is why Gratton said he is not sure he will wear one after his vision clears. It is why Olli Jokinen took his visor off.
The Panthers captain wore one last season because, as he said recently, "I don't think hockey is worth losing an eye over."
But several factors, including the little cuts he said he sustained when the bottom of the visor pushed into his face, changed his mind.
"It was really bothering me during training camp," he said. "Especially on faceoffs, you're going to battle and the visor gets pushed down into your mouth. And it's foggy, and you can't see the puck. This is my job, and I have to perform to the best I can. Any piece of equipment I don't like, I won't use it."
Donaldson said visor bottoms are "sanded and buffed" to help prevent facial cuts but said the most important technological advancement has been molding the Plexiglas into a "bubble" so it does not distort even peripheral vision.
They also are "hard-coated" with what he likened to a "clear nail polish" to resist scratches. And there is an application of "anti-fog protection." Donaldson would not reveal the ingredients - trade secret, apparently - but insisted it works as long as the visor is not washed with an alcohol-based product.
There are tinted visors for players with light-sensitive eyes. The next generation, Donaldson said, is visors that can be ripped off when players fight.
"We've come up with a product that's going to protect your eye," Donaldson said. "Why wouldn't you wear it?"
Vinny Prospal said he wears one because, "I want to see my kids grow up," but was adamant the decision should be left to each player. The Lightning left wing said that for the past 15 years he has worn the same type of low-tech, nonbubbled, curved piece of plastic, and he scoffed at worries of fogging.
"It's not like we stay on the ice for 60 minutes," he said. "We can use a towel to wipe it off."
Seeing the evidence
Stuart, USA Hockey's chief medical officer, was co-author of a 2002 study that measured how facial protection reduces hockey injuries.
The Mayo Clinic study, funded by USA Hockey and published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, followed 282 United States Hockey League players.
The result: Players wearing no protection were 4.7 times more likely to sustain an eye injury than those wearing visors.
"Although the use of a visor does not eliminate the risk of blindness," Stuart said, "research and common sense tells us that saving even one eye is worth the effort."
That study, which Stuart presented to the American Hockey League, and the 2006 injury to Jordan Smith, who lost vision in his lacerated left eye when hit by a puck, helped prompt the AHL last season to mandate visors.
But that didn't stop Lightning rookie Matt Smaby, who played last season for AHL Springfield, from taking his off when he got to the NHL.
"I think about it," he said of injury, "but that stuff is going to happen. And for a while, they didn't even play with helmets, so at least we have those on.
"It's more the sweat that bothers me than anything. It's like a car windshield with a bunch of rain on it."
Lecavalier, who had to wear a visor in juniors, his last step before the NHL, said shedding it seemed natural.
"You get to the NHL, and you're like, 'Wow, you can take it off,"' he said. "You look at other guys who don't have them on, and you say, 'Okay, I'll take it off, too.'"
Stuart admitted visors "do take a little getting used to," but still was disappointed when he presented his study to the NHL players' association during the 2004-05 lockout and could not change enough minds.
Same with son Mark, the Bruins defenseman.
"He's not on me or anything," Mark said. "He knows I've read a lot of his stuff, and he knows how I feel. It's just one of those things."