PHILADELPHIA — When Chris Pronger returns to the NHL, he’ll have more than his captain’s “C” as a uniform accessory.
He’ll also wear a protective shield.
Pronger suffered the scariest injury of his 18-year career this week when a wayward stick jabbed him just outside his right eye during a 4-2 win over Toronto. The blow was enough to send the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman into a panic. He screamed and sprinted off the ice in seconds, likely fearing the worst for his eyesight.
He survived the incident with his sight and career intact. Pronger could be back in two to three weeks, agitating the opposition, trading barbs with the media, and standing tall again as one of the top defenseman in the NHL.
Instead of bed rest, though, he should have been in Philadelphia’s lineup this week. But Pronger is one of many veterans — who play a valiant game in a valiant league — who have refused to wear a protective plastic visor.
Some cite discomfort.
For most players, like sidelined Flyers forward Ian Laperriere, they simply haven’t abandoned their outdated attitudes that wearing a shield means a player isn’t tough. Facemasks aren’t hip — and only the real macho players are willing to take the ice without them.
Some players once felt the same way about helmets and other protective gear. Now, keeping heads safe is mandatory. Eyes could be next.
The time could be near when visors are as much a part of the game as sticks and gloves.
“Sometimes you have to save the players from themselves,” said Pierre McGuire, an NHL analyst for NBC and Versus.
While it’s often a puck that causes damage, Pronger was the victim of a freak stick accident. Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski slapped at the puck, but his stick connected with Pronger’s and the blade shot straight up into the defenseman’s face. In the blink of an eye, Pronger nearly lost one.
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren was blunt: Doctors would not clear Pronger to return unless he wore a visor.
“Some of these guys have been around a long time, and if they don’t want to wear it, they won’t want to wear it for whatever reason,” Holmgren said.
All it takes is that one vicious high stick, one puck blasted at 100 mph right at the eyes to change a player’s view.
Flyers forward Scott Hartnell added a visor in his second season after a shot to the face. Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis played his four seasons without one until he realized its value in blocking shots. Retired NHL star Ron Francis had no use for a visor until he took a slapshot to the eye.
Francis, now the Carolina Hurricanes director of hockey operations, might have played on without one had it not been for doctor’s orders.
“I got hit in the (left) eye with a slapshot and spent seven days in the hospital with both my eyes patched shut,” Francis said. “I remember the doctor’s exact words when he took the patches off my eyes. He said, ‘God must have been on my side because normally they don’t turn out this well.'”
Scare tactics work. So why not common sense?
“You see guys that get a stick poked in the face as kind of a warning sign and put one on after that,” said Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone, who does not use a shield. “But I don’t know. You can’t really worry about it. It just comes with the territory.”
Like Pronger, Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf is a team captain and a physical defenseman. He understands that inherent danger has long been a part of the game. With pucks and sticks and bulky bodies flying in front of the net, Phaneuf has always played with a shield.
When it’s time to fight, well, off goes the visor.
“I play a physical style of game. I have no problem taking it off when you fight or whatnot,” he said. “I’ve always done that.”
For the brawlers, it’s not that simple. Playing with an exposed face can serve as a signal that it’s time to fight. Punch me. I can take it. And I’ll punch you back.
It’s a badge of courage not to wear one. It’s about the pride of the game, and proud players being proud players.
“If they brought the rule in to wear one, I wouldn’t be complaining,” Nashville enforcer Brian McGrattan said. “But I can’t be a guy in my role flying around with a half visor on. That’s the only reason I don’t wear one.”
McGrattan once racked up 551 penalty minutes in the AHL — where visors are mandatory. Some type of cage or visor is mandatory in all levels of hockey except the NHL. If shields are eventually required in a collective bargaining agreement, players hope there is some sort of grandfather clause, like there once was for helmets.
Its use is so ingrained in youth hockey that the change to an all-visor NHL could come naturally. In a poll last year conducted by The Hockey News, 65 percent of NHL players younger than 30 used a visor, while only 45 percent of players 30 and older used the protection.
“I’m comfortable with it off, and just worry about everything else instead and go from there,” said Carolina’s Eric Staal, only 26.
The NHLPA has strongly encouraged all players to wear a visor, union spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said. He said the use of visors in the NHL is at an all-time high of about 68 percent (though rosters change on a regular basis) this season. The NHLPA has been proactive in educating players that wearing a visor decreases the risk of suffering an eye injury.
A shield is not necessarily a guaranteed protector. There’s enough of a gap between the plastic and the face for the rare poke from a stick to slip in. Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr likened an ill-fitted shield at the World Championships to reading a book with someone else’s glasses and complained of headaches. Others feel the shields are a nuisance when they fog up or shaved ice needs to be brushed off. There are also complaints about a lack of peripheral vision.
“Everybody kind of wants you to put one on,” Malone said, “but I played in the Olympics and the World Championships with them, and I kind of think of them as more of a pain then for the safety.”
One of the more gruesome sights of the last few seasons came when Laperriere took a puck to the face, his blood spilling on the ice and pleading with the trainer to let him know if he still had his eye. He paid the ultimate price — his career is all but over — yet admits playing without a shield was part of his tough-guy identity he could not give up.
“You can break an arm and come back. You can shred a knee and come back,” McGuire said.
“You lose an eye, you’re done.”
AP Sports Writer Ira Podell in New York contributed to this story.
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