Friday, March 26, 2010

Face and Eyes

Left: Travis Moen's face, Montreal Gazette photo

Bill Masterton was born in Winnipeg in the heat of August in 1938. He grew up to be a pretty decent hockey player in an age when you had to be damn good to crack an NHL lineup and only the best guys made it. He signed a deal with the Habs in 1961, but there was no way a guy like him was going to jump into a stacked lineup just coming off five straight Stanley Cups. So, Masterton instead played centre for the University of Denver for a few years, then bounced around the minor pro leagues a bit. He went to work and started a family. Then, NHL expansion unexpectedly gave him his big chance at a hockey career, and, at the age of 29, he proudly lined up for the Minnesota North Stars in that team's debut season. Masterton played 38 games with the North Stars in 1967-68, posting big-league totals of four goals and eight assists. It was a small career; one which only the staunchest of Minnesota fans would remember now if things had ended differently. He wasn't the kind of guy who would ever have had a trophy named after him, under ordinary circumstances. Sadly, hockey fans today know Bill Masterton's name because on January 13, 1968, halfway through his first and only NHL season, a helmetless Masterton was hit by two Oakland Seals players during a game. He crashed to the ice and the back of his head struck with a crack his teammates could hear from the bench. He was knocked unconscious and carried off the ice with blood spilling from his nose and mouth. Bill Masterton passed away in hospital two days later as a result of the incident, leaving his wife and two little children to wonder why he had to die for the sake of a game. He is still the only NHL player to have died as a direct result of injuries sustained on the ice.

Masterton wasn't alone in shunning the helmet. The common arguments against wearing them were that they were uncomfortable, that they'd give a false impression of protection and encourage a decrease in respect as a result and that they would erect a barrier of anonymity between players and the fans. Running underneath those public arguments, however, was a deep current of machismo. "Real" men like Gordie Howe played without helmets and men who might have secretly wanted to wear one chose not to because they didn't want to be perceived as weak or lacking in masculinity.

The NHL community was devastated by the death of Bill Masterton in 1968, but in the aftermath of worry and debate about player safety, only two players decided to adopt a helmet. It took eleven years...eleven years!...after Masterton died to make helmets mandatory equipment in NHL games. Even then, the rule had to be grandfathered in so veterans wouldn't have to follow it. Now, 31 years later, it's inconceivable that a hockey player at any level would touch the ice without head protection. If someone should lose his helmet by chance during play, we wait anxiously to make sure he gets safely back to the bench.

A similar thing happened with goalie masks. Until Jacques Plante insisted on wearing his in games, after Andy Bathgate nearly removed his nose with a shot, men suffered horrendous facial injuries playing goal rather than don simple protection.
Now the game must be stopped if a goaltender should accidentally lose his mask, for fear of his sustaining a major injury.

When it comes to visors, though, we're still back in the days of the cavemen. They're mandatory in junior hockey and in the AHL, but when players make the NHL, they have the option to discard their eye protection. About thirty percent of incoming players choose to do so. Their publicly-stated reasons include impaired vision and discomfort. That's all BS. The real reason is because there's still a lingering impression that men who wear visors are wimps. It's considered bad form to fight while wearing a visor, so players who expect to drop their gloves in a game leave their eyes unprotected, just in case.

Travis Moen came within millimetres of losing his left eye earlier this week, when Matt Cullen's skate accidentally cut him for more than fifty stitches. Following the snaking path of the slice that curves right over his eyeball, it's something of a miracle that he didn't sustain vision damage. Afterwards, he said he knows he's really lucky to have escaped the accident with both eyes, but he hasn't decided whether he'll permanently adopt a visor. He thinks the decision about whether to wear a visor should be left up to individual players. He said, "Old habits die hard." That's exactly the problem with the NHL.

If players are too manly to protect their vision, the league has to insist they do so, just as it did with helmets. It's like seatbelts in the general population. People didn't wear their seatbelts and they were getting killed in accidents when a simple belt would have saved their lives. The government had to legislate seatbelt wear. Eyes are delicate things, you only have two of them, and you can't play hockey if you lose one. That should be enough to make players decide to protect them. The other thing that should convince every single player in the league to wear a visor is the absolute certainty that their vision will be at risk at some point if they don't. With sticks, pucks and skates flying at high speeds, players get hit in the face often. It would be nearly impossible to find an NHL player who's never had stitches in his face, and the distance to the eye in that case is pretty small.

Of course, a visor won't protect absolutely. Sometimes freak accidents happen even with them, as was the case when Justin Williams nearly blinded Saku Koivu with a stick under the shield. But most of the time the visor can save the worst of the damage. I remember watching Josh Gorges go down to block a hard shot early this season. It hit him directly in the visor, and the damage he would have sustained had he not been wearing it doesn't bear thinking about.

I find it beyond ironic that the victim of the NHL's most famous eye injury, Bryan Berard, recived the Bill Masterton trophy after he suffered multiple surgeries in his attempt to return to hockey. The man who nearly lost his eye because he wasn't wearing a visor won the award named for the man who died because he wasn't wearing a helmet. I wonder if Travis Moen has considered that he wouldn't have a shot at the Masterton trophy if he'd lost his sight the other night. You have to still be a hockey player to win it, and you can't play with one eye. That's why the AHL made visors mandatory three years ago. Jordan Smith, a 20-year-old Ducks prospect, lost the sight in his left eye when he was struck by a puck and a promising career ended.

I don't want to see an NHLer blinded because he wasn't wearing a visor, just like nobody wanted to see a pro hockey player killed when he wasn't wearing a helmet. The worst had to happen in Bill Masterton's case to force players into protecting their heads. There's no need to let that lesson live in the past without learning something from it today.


DKerr said...


Well written. I can remember another instance where the visor hurt a player. Back in the day, Kevin Stevens hit the ice face first and somehow the visor drove up and caused damage. But, no one taked about what would have happened had he not been wearing a helmet. I doubt very much Stevens or Saku would ever say "if I only weren't wearing that damned visor". The percentages favor those who wear it.

In a related note on player safety is the Spacek hit on Booth. I did not like that the press releases (the game not even over) sent to the wire described it as a hit the head on the same day the NHL incorporated news rules, etc. The writing would lead one to connect the dots and assume it was a dirty hit and that the league was not doing anything about it because no penalty was called on the play. I think the player reactions told the true story. There was some milling around, but that broke up harmlessly. Spacek showed his true colors by hanging around Booth and giving him a encouraging tap when he was getting assisted up - not the actions of a head hunter. But if you were reading the press releases, you would be steered in a different direction.

dwgs said...

I snorted when I read the Stubbs story in the Gazette. That quote about "old habits" was too much. Hey Travis, presumably you wore a visor (or more likely a full cage) for 15 years or more from Tyke up to the end of your AHL stint. Apparently that habit was easy enough to break.
He's a grown man and his life is his own but come on.

MC said...

Well said JT. The stupid thing is the visors are hardly noticable to the spectator, so making them mandatory has very little affect on the game's image. As much as I agreed with the helmut rule when they brought it in, I remember thinking "I can't imagine Lafleur with a helmut!"

Maybe its time to get rid of fighting as well. If you don't have to fight, the is no reason not to wear a visor. I personally find the staged fights boring and lacking animosity. In the playoffs there is almost no fighting which proves it is not integral to the game. But that is another discussion.