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Most Stars wearing visors now, although still some holdouts

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

To most sane, thoughtful observers, it just seems like common sense, but there’s a little more to the issue than first meets the eye.

Nicklas Grossman just moments after taking a skate to his cheek. The cut required 60 stiches
While the old stereotype of the hockey player with missing teeth is still somewhat accurate, wearing a clear plastic visor to protect their vision seems like a no-brainer, especially when there have been several high-profile incidents over the past several months involving NHL players almost losing an eye.

Most members of the Dallas Stars do have visors on their helmets, a total bolstered by a few notables putting it on just this year after not wearing one previously, but there are still several holdouts on the roster. The players still baring their faces on the ice have several different rationalizations for not putting one on, including the hope that it just won’t happen to them.

Count defenseman Adam Pardy among the dwindling non-visor contingent, even after a wayward puck that struck him in the face Oct. 25 in Phoenix caused a gash that required several stitches just an inch or so beneath his right eye.

“It’s weird, because I know I should be wearing a visor,” acknowledged the 27-year-old Pardy, “but it’s one of those things where, I’ve taken it off and it’s tough wearing one. Everything looks different through a visor. You’re looking through a piece of plastic, it kind of throws you off a bit if you’re not used to it. I’ve taken a lot of pucks and sticks in the face, but so far, so good. I think it happens anyway, there’s situations where things get caught up under your visor. It’s just a personal choice. I don’t know, maybe one day I’ll pick it up again, but for now, I’ll keep knocking on wood.”

Defenseman Nicklas Grossman is another one who was forced into wearing a face shield due to injury, but took it off as soon as the wound was healed.  And Grossman’s facial cut was much more severe than Pardy’s, as the Swedish blueliner received 60 stitches after a skate sliced through his cheek on Oct. 29.

“I just had a cage on for a couple of days to let the stitches heal, put the big cage on because the docs told me,” Grossman said.  “He said, ‘Once it heals up after 2-3 weeks, you can take the cage off if you want, I’m not going to stop you,’ and I’m so used to playing without it, I had to take it off.   Those things happen all the time, and if you skate around worrying about it, it just makes it worse.  If it happens, it happens.  I was lucky.”

And yes, Pardy is correct that facial injuries still happen to players who wear visors, which normally only come down to the bridge of the nose. Jaws, teeth, chins and cheeks are still fair game, with the nose partially exposed, but the eyes are protected.

Take one look at defenseman Stephane Robidas, who has had several instances over the past few years where he took a puck in the face, and it might surprise people to find out that he’s always worn a visor. But after the last time he broke his nose, he decided to go with a little additional protection.

“I’ve always had a visor - to me, there’s no question,” said Robidas, who displayed incredible toughness during the 2008 playoffs when a puck broke his nose and he returned minutes later wearing a full face-shield. “It’s nothing to do with toughness any more. Even me, I wear a longer one. Since I broke my nose, I made it longer and it covers down to the tip of my nose instead of just over the eyes.”

The macho hockey culture used to dictate that physical, abrasive players needed to keep the visor off so they could drop the gloves and fight after agitating other visor-less players. But after seeing Vancouver center (and former Star) Manny Malhotra nearly lose his eye from an errant puck last season and star Philadelphia defenseman Chris Pronger’s close call when an opponent’s shot follow-through hit him in the eye earlier this year, that outdated notion is thankfully changing.

One man helping to challenge that archaic perception is gritty Stars forward Adam Burish, who opted to put a visor on in September following four NHL seasons without it.

“This is the first year I ever wore one, and I thought that same exact thing, because of the way I play, I shouldn’t wear a visor,” admitted Burish. “I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. I thought, ‘If you’re going to play tough, you’re going to be in people’s faces, you shouldn’t hide under a visor.’ But for me, it was after seeing what happened to Malhotra last year, just the puck, neutral zone, hits him in the eye, almost loses his eye and ends his career. So for me, it was, ‘You know what? Let the macho thing aside, there’s a lot of guys who play tough and play hard and play mean and nasty and they wear visors.’”

“Just because you’re wearing a visor doesn’t mean you aren’t a tough player,” added center Vernon Fiddler, whose missing front tooth harkens back to an earlier era. “You can take your helmet off if you’re going to fight. You just never know. The pucks are coming so hard these days, pucks are flying around, you just never know and I’m not willing to take that chance.”

To their credit, several members of the Stars sandpapery contingent consulted each other, as Burish, Fiddler and agitator Steve Ott all helped convince one another to put a visor on.

“Before the season, Ott and I kind of talked and then Fiddler got here, and we said, ‘You guys all going to wear one this year, are we wearing one?’” revealed Burish. “It’s the smart thing to do. To be honest, I think everyone should wear one. I think most of the guys who don’t will tell you that, too, but the kind of way you play, you think you shouldn’t and you kind of feel bad wearing one, but I got over that now, and I think a lot of guys are starting to.”

“I’ve always been on the other side of it for a lot of my games, I never wore one,” said Ott. “You tough it out and you play a role and you continue to do so, but putting it on just made more sense this year. I’m taking a lot of face-offs, my face is probably one of the things that I’m leading with many times. Already this year, a lot of pucks, a lot of sticks have gone off the visor and also, I’m standing around the net and in the areas where you’re seeing a lot of guys get dinged this year. And Sheldon Souray scares me so much with his bomb that I wish I had a full cage on.”

Further demonstrating how much more enlightened the modern NHL is, Burish and Ott each report that they have not heard any mocking chirps from opponents about the visors this year.

“Nope, nobody’s said anything, I haven’t heard anything,” said Burish, “which is probably a good sign the way the game’s going.”

“Not really, to be honest with you, and I thought I would,” added Ott, who decided to put the visor on after receiving an inadvertent stick in the face at the end of last season. “I think you obviously earn respect in the league and guys know you’re still a gamer. You look at guys like Jarome Iginla, if you need to fight with the visor, you can take off your helmet and fight fairly. That would be something that I would do if I was in that situation, if a guy didn’t have a visor on, that I would take it off and fight fairly. So I don’t think that has anything to do with your physical toughness when it comes to the fighting side of it.”

There is an NHL rule that dictates a player wearing a visor initiating a fight with a visor-less opponent receives a game misconduct, so Ott and Burish have to be mindful of that. The one fight Ott has engaged in this season, a scrap with Los Angeles’ Mike Richards back on Oct. 22, involved two players with visors because Richards, who’s quite feisty himself, also wears one.

“Both of us had visors on, which makes it fair, but in a vulnerable position, I’d just take it off and fight fairly,” Ott said. “But mostly it’s for the pucks and sticks, and I got hit in the face from Ribeiro off a face-off last year and it scared me. It blew my face up, and an inch a little higher, I think I would have lost my eye. I think that’s really what smartened me up.”

While a scary incident did not convince Grossman or Pardy to put a visor on, it took two close calls over the last 11 months to induce captain Brenden Morrow to finally come around.

After a wayward puck broke his nose last season, he was forced to wear a full-length visor for awhile and immediately went on a goal-scoring binge en route to a career-high 33 goals, although he did take it off after the nose healed. Morrow started this year without the visor, but after another puck cut his face in Phoenix Oct. 25, he put the visor back on, supposedly for good this time.

“The thing is, (a facial injury) could happen anyway with a visor, but it would probably help,” acknowledged Robidas. “I don’t know what to say. Brenden wore one last year and took it off this year and now he’s putting it back on. But he had his best year in goals last year. I’m not a top scorer, but you take a look at the top scorers in the league, they all have them, except maybe one guy.”

Not only that, but every player who does not have a visor on now made the conscious choice to take it off, because in all of the feeder leagues to the NHL - the minor leagues, junior hockey in Canada and the U.S., NCAA hockey, the European leagues, international tournaments - all require visors.

“I played junior with a visor, I came out of junior and stayed with the visor and never left it. You play junior, you have to wear it, so why take it off?” wondered Robidas. “Guys in the minors now, they have to wear it. Guys that go to the World Championships, they have to wear it. Anywhere. And they’re fine.”

“In the minors, you’re required to wear one, so yeah, I wore one,” acknowledged Pardy, who played three full years in the minors, including 41 games for current Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan at ECHL Las Vegas in 2005-06. “And at first when I came up in the league, I wore one, too, I think for my first three or four months and then I took it off and thought, ‘Wow, I can see the ice now. I could see everything different.’ I thought my vision was better, so I just kept it off for that reason.

“It’s a personal choice to wear a visor or not. You got to think about it long and hard. The odds of actually taking one in the eye, I don’t know if there’s a math equation for that, but there are so many games played. You wish it never happens and I hope it never happens to me, I got to knock on wood again, I don’t like to be talking about it, but it’s just a personal choice for me because I can see the ice better.”

And while the NHL is the only top-level league in the world that allows its players to actually have a choice, there has been some conjecture that a rule making visors mandatory could be part of the next collective bargaining agreement that needs to be in place before next season.

“This is the only league that doesn’t mandate them,” said Burish. “I think guys like the choice and I think more and more guys will start wearing them. I think there should be a choice, but if they were to make it mandatory, I don’t think you’d hear a whole lot of complaints.”

“I don’t know if I’d fight against it that hard,” Pardy said of the possibility of a league mandate. “If they decide that, it would be a group decision, with all the players and everyone involved for the safety of players. That’s ultimately what it’s all about. If it saves one guy, then it’s worth it, right? I don’t think I’d fight against it that much.”

One can only hope such a rule is implemented before another near-tragedy like Malhotra’s situation or even a Bryan Berard scenario from several years back happens again in the NHL. Until then, players will continue to have close calls that scare them into utilizing visors voluntarily, just like Fiddler’s several years ago.

“I’m so down low to the ice taking face-offs, I’ve been hit so many times, it was driving my mom, my wife and my sister nuts,” said Fiddler. “(The visor) is something you get used to. You never even notice it on any more. You never know when your career can end with a puck in the eye. I’ve been on the wrong end of a lot of those, and I’m not willing to take another one.”

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