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Marc Staal was not wearing a visor when a puck struck him in the face. (Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports)

Visors and Icing: Deliberation at the GM Meetings

A disturbing trend increasingly pervades the professional sporting world: alarmism. Sports that are heavy in physical contact seem to bear the heaviest brunt of worst-case hypotheticals and heavy-handed reactions to anomalies. Hockey is certainly a sport in which the ubiquity of physical play has led to controversy. Recently, the National Hockey League held its annual General Managers meeting designed to discuss the league’s problems and their potential solutions; topics included but were not limited to mandatory visors and hybrid icing.

One subject addressed by the GMs was the idea of mandating the usage of visors on helmets (by way of grandfathering; new players would have no choice but to wear them, but current players would still have the right to choose). The NHL Player’s Association struck down such a movement in 2009, but the vast majority of players coming into the league wear them. The NHLPA plans on polling the players again during the summer, and some feel that the consensus may have shifted enough to approve the plan.

Many players have been injured by high sticks and pucks; the most recent example was that of Marc Staal, who was struck in the eye with a puck. Staal was not wearing a visor, but his two brothers have since stated that they will now do so. Visors reduce (but do not eliminate) these injuries. Wearing a visor makes sense. But those who oppose the idea of mandating them tend to ask the question: why not allow grown men make their own decisions and take responsibility for them? These are adults; they are capable of weighing pros and cons. Why must their responsibility be taken from them? The slippery slope argument is often maligned, but it can be applied here. At what point do we allow adults to handle themselves?

Hybrid icing is another issue that concerns player safety. In the current system, players race to the puck in a dead heat straight at the boards. This has led to a few scenarios in which players fall or are pushed into the boards at high speeds causing injury. In the worst case, a Swiss player was paralyzed after an icing incident. Support has grown for hybrid icing, a system in which the referees determine whether or not to blow the play dead if they feel that the defending player will touch the puck first (the referee makes this decision based primarily on the players’ respective positions when reaching the zone’s face-off dot.) If the referee feels that it will be either player that will touch the puck, he must blow the whistle. The only scenario in which icing is waved off is if the referee feels the attacking player will certainly reach the puck first.

The most significant difference between the current and proposed systems is that, as opposed to the players actually arriving at and touching the puck, the referee now must decide which player he feels will touch it first (icing would be called if the players are equally likely to get to the puck first). While this will prevent a few injuries, there is an obvious problem: more gray area and speculation for referees. A point must be made: this is an athletic competition. It may sound callous, but injuries are always a risk of sports. This will never change (unless the very definition of athletic competition is altered). What this rule would do would be to place more burden onto hockey’s referees, and as the game stands today, that is exactly the change we need the least. Already are games riddled with arbitrary penalties; it seems that blatant infractions are ignored just as often as negligible or justifiable actions are penalized. Introducing even more opportunities for speculation is a recipe for more discontent with the league’s already heavily maligned officiating.

One can certainly see the reasoning behind mandating hybrid icing: increased safety. In the face of this argument, almost no rebuttal can stand. Those who argue against these rule changes could be branded insensitive to the well-being of players. But is this reasonable? The argument could be applied to so many aspects of the sport. It is used in the argument to ban fighting (an issue that will certainly become more polarizing in the future).  How many players are injured by the current icing format? This scenario would not be ideal for the league’s situation- the refereeing is already horribly inconsistent. If they must change icing, it should be towards a simple no-touch system, however this would also have negative effects.

In either case, these decisions must be made with proper reasoning; they should not be made for the sole purpose of avoiding alarmist, reactionary publicity. It is important to remember that injuries are always a risk in sports, and that these players are grown men. They must be given the opportunity to make their own decisions. They choose to play the game and they understand the risks. They should be treated as adults.

-Sam Lakey

Tags: NHL St. Louis Blues

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