CHICAGO – Duncan Keith
sat behind his podium at Thursday's Media Day still half-mumbling answers after losing seven teeth in the clinching game of the Western Conference Finals.
Keith, who returned to play a few shifts after being hit in the mouth with a clearing attempt this past Sunday, was asked why NHL players don't wear full face cages like their college counterparts.
"I don't know, that's a good question," said Keith, who still has residual pain in his mouth as he prepares for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS). "I think it just comes down to (the fact) it's a fast-paced game, can be a violent game and there's some risk involved in everything you do. That's the way it goes sometimes, I guess."
Keith said wearing a full cage isn't necessarily the be-all, end-all answer to facial injuries in hockey -- citing lacerations to his chin in college despite wearing a cage at Michigan State. He also said wearing cages invariably leads to more high sticks, flying elbows and other dangerous maneuvers by players who feel protected from harm.
Still, that's coming from a guy who is now seven teeth short of a full set. Could a full cage or shield have saved his choppers?
"Uh ... I don't know," Keith said. "Maybe it would've ... but I don't really care."
The comment drew laughs, but Keith's disregard for his dental wellbeing is common among hockey players – especially professionals, some of whom consider plastic visors to be pushing the envelope. Players for both the Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers
were asked on Thursday about the use of face shields, and to a man they agreed the full face cage – like those in college -- will never be mandatory or common in the NHL.
They say hockey is simply a rough sport -- and that those who play it should accept the risks.
"If you're going to play hockey, you're going to lose some teeth," said Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen
, who has lost most of his upper teeth and is currently sporting a black eye. "It doesn't matter how you play. That's just the reality. In a perfect world, we could all use the full masks and not lose anything, but it's not going to happen that way."
There are a number of reasons why it won't. Some pros are simply too proud to part with hockey tradition, while others don't want to be different than their peers. Some are reluctant to limit their vision, which can happen when full the plastic shields that kids use get fogged up.
The result is a widespread willingness to accept the loss of teeth, while stopping at half-shield visors to protect their eyes.
Hawks forward Troy Brouwer
decided to wear a visor after getting hit in the eye with a slap shot in his first NHL exhibition game. Flyers forward Scott Hartnell
opted for one after getting clipped in the eye with a high stick during his second year in the League. And then there is young Hawks forward Bryan Bickell
, who wears a visor that might have saved his career while he played for Rockford in the AHL last year.
Bickell was hit in the visor by a slap shot from teammate Jordan Hendry
, which cracked the plastic and knocked Bickell out of action.
"I had bleeding in my eye, and I was out for a month," he said. "Thank God I had a visor on."
Bickell's front teeth don't get quite the same protection. Bickell said they were initially knocked out in junior hockey after being hit by a helmet during a collision. He replaced them with implants, but those also kept getting knocked loose. He now used what he calls a "flipper," which is an orthodontic device that has teeth on it that he can remove while he plays.
It wasn't just the puck that got him to this point, either.
"When I was in Guelph, there was a faceoff at the dot, the puck went in and the linesman was waving offside when he clothes-lined me right in the mouth," Bickell said. "I lost more bits and pieces of my teeth. After that, I was like, 'I've got to get rid of these (implants).' Every time I turn around I'm getting them knocked out."
A full cage probably would've worked, but Bickell doesn't favor it. His being a scrapper might be part of the reason.
"Fighting is implemented into junior hockey and the NHL, and you're really not able to fight with the cages on," Hawks forward Troy Brouwer
said. "If you do get into a fight, no one's hurting their hands. It's fair that both guys' faces are exposed, I guess. That's probably the real reason behind it."
"If you're going to play hockey, you're going to lose some teeth" -- Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen
Hartnell, who's also been known to scrap, agreed.
"It's part of the game," he said. "I play tough enough to where I drop the mitts. When you square off, if you're wearing a visor you take the helmet off."
Flyers teammate Ian Laperriere
does the same, but for the rest of the playoffs, he is actually wearing a full face cage. He is quick to point out, though, that it's strictly by doctor's orders. A shot in the conference quarterfinals against New Jersey hit him just above the right eye, causing a brain contusion and concussion.
It was the second time this season that he'd caught a puck to the face while attempting to block a shot -- the first happened early in the season and cost him seven teeth, like Keith. The scarier one was the one that hit above his eye.
"I thought I was blind for 10 minutes," Laperriere said. "I thought I lost my eye. I said, 'That's enough.' Two in one year. It took me 15 years to get one in the face, but two in one year? That's when I said, 'I'm going to wear a half shield next year.' And the deal with the doc this year was a full cage now."
Laperriere still remains adamant that each player should have a choice about visors, though. The League has asked players to vote on making them mandatory in the past, and Laperriere always votes the same.
"You won't see a full shield on me or anybody unless you see an injury," he said. "They ask us every year if wearing shields should be mandatory. I always vote, 'No,' and I'm still going to say, 'No.' It should be your choice. If a guy doesn't want to wear one, then he accepts the consequences … like I did."