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10/13/2006 8:58 AM - Griffins players see compulsory visors as a “mixed blessing”

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Darryl Bootland is trying to be pragmatic about the new AHL rule that requires all skaters, regardless of age or experience, to wear approved protective visors this season.

“The five stitches in the nose or three stitches in the eye aren’t going to happen and that’ll definitely make the girlfriend happy,” he notes.

Not that Bootland is happy about the requirement. But then, he isn’t alone in his misgivings about the mandatory equipment.

“I guess it’s better if it’s safer, but it’s still a pain in the butt,” adds veteran Kip Miller, who has never regularly worn a visor during his 17-year pro career.

Players grudgingly welcomed the new rule, which was prompted in part by an injury last season to Portland’s Jordan Smith.

A top prospect of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, Smith was struck by a deflected puck and had to retire at age 20 when he lost sight in his lacerated left eye.

From his perspective, Griffins medical therapist Rob Snitzer thinks the regulation has long been overdue.

“It’s definitely going to save a lot of facial trauma,” says Snitzer, who notes that he heard more complaints last season when players were required to all use the same brand of hockey stick.

Although no Griffins players have suffered any serious eye damage during his 10-plus years in Grand Rapids, Snitzer has seen the kind of injuries that can be incurred.

Before the Griffins, he worked with the AHL’s Prince Edward Island Senators and he remembers Trent McCleary getting struck in the eye by an errant stick.

McCleary suffered a hyphema (pooling of blood in the anterior chamber of the eye) and lost three months of action, not to mention nearly losing his sight.

“The visor is obviously something that medical research has deemed necessary to make the game safer and allow players to prolong their careers,” Snitzer says.

Junior hockey and colleges already require facial protection, but visors have always been optional in most professional leagues, including the AHL and NHL.

As a result, many players dropped the equipment once they entered the pro ranks. “I’d come home from playing junior hockey and every summer I’d take the visor off,” says Griffins defenseman Derek Meech.

Wearing a visor, players complained, makes it more difficult to see the puck at their feet. Scratches, sweat or snow on the visor can obstruct their view.

“I’ve had injuries where I had to wear one and I could never wait to get it off,” Miller says. “I always felt like I was looking through the glass and not actually in the game.”

Miller had Griffins equipment manager Brad Thompson ship a visor to him this summer after he signed with the team. “I had Brad send me one so I could try to get used to it,” Miller says. “It’s a big adjustment.”

Griffins forward Eric Himelfarb says he has mixed feelings about the new regulation. “I understand why they have the rule, but I wish they could have grandfathered it into the league and allowed established players the choice.”

In reality, more and more players have opted to wear visors over the years.

In 2001, 24 percent of NHL players wore them. That figure increased to 38 percent of the 700 NHL players by 2005. It’s expected that the number will probably reach 40 percent this season.

According to Thompson, players can choose from two manufacturers, I-Tech and Oakley, as well as different designs or even tinted shades.

Players admit that there is always a tempation to tip the visor up so that it doesn’t distort their vision. Snitzer laughs. “That looks good, protecting your forehead like that,” he says.

Thompson notes that the league has said it will assess minor penalties to players who are not wearing equipment properly.

Snitzer wonders whether the AHL might see an increase in high-sticking infractions this season if players become lackadaisical. “In the days before visors, players seemed to have more respect because they learned to keep their sticks down.”

There’s also the question of what happens when two players want to drop their gloves. Will players toss their helmets aside before they begin to fight?

“I don’t know,” Bootland says. “Sometimes you’re going to have to throw (punches) and hopefully your hands can hold up as the year goes by. I’m guessing I’ll get pretty good at taking the other guy’s helmet off.”

Of course, a visor is no guarantee against injury. During the playoffs last season, Griffins winger Jiri Hudler had the tip of his nose cut off by his visor after he was smashed into the boards from behind.

In addition, sticks can get caught inside the visor. “There’s always the potential for even more damage if the stick gets stuck underneath,” Snitzer says.

For the most part, however, visors have been shown to save a lot more injuries than they cause.

“Wearing a visor might be a little bit of a nuisance, but if it’s going to save my eyes, I don’t mind wearing one,” Meech says.

Ultimately, it’s all about safety.

“In the end, it’s up to the league to make sure they don’t lose any players (to eye injuries),” Himelfarb says. “If wearing a visor is going to make us safer out there and less prone to injuries, it’s for the best.”

Snitzer sees another possible equipment change on the horizon. A number of medical professionals are pushing for mandatory mouthguards, which only 25-30 percent of players presently wear.

Mouthguards do more than protect teeth. They act as shock absorbers in the case of violent hits or collisions, which could prevent or at least decrease the severity of concussions.

“You can always replace your teeth, you can get fake teeth or make them look pretty, but you can’t do much for your brain, unfortunately,” Snitzer says.

“A mouthguard is important not so much for the dental issue as it is for concussions. You only have so many chances with a concussion because the more you get, the more prone you become.

“There are a lot of things that the medical community can fix. You can get a new shoulder or a new knee, but we haven’t found a solution yet for concussions.”

Snitzer doesn’t subscribe to the belief that the game will be forever altered if all players wear visors. “When we brought in helmets, people said it would totally change the game forever,” he says. “It’s all just a product of evolution.”

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