NHL Referee Injured by Shot to Face: Is It Time for Mandatory Visors in Hockey?

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NHL Referee Injured by Shot to Face: Is It Time for Mandatory Visors in Hockey?
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NHL referee Kelly Sutherland was injured and forced to leave Wednesday night's Rangers-Sabres game after taking a deflected puck to the face. Sutherland does not wear a visor or protective shield designed to prevent such injuries.

With sharp blades, whizzing pucks and weapon-like sticks, hockey players and officials have one of the most dangerous jobs in sports, which we were unfortunately reminded of on Wednesday night when NHL referee Kelly Sutherland was forced to leave the New York Rangers vs. Buffalo Sabres contest in the first period due to injury.

With 14:23 remaining in the first period of the game, Sutherland found himself directly in the line of fire, as a shot attempt was deflected off a Rangers player, careening directly into Sutherland's face.

The puck bounced off Sutherland and was briefly batted around by several Sabres and Rangers players before play was stopped to attend to the clearly shaken-up official. During the subsequent injury timeout, Sabres trainers and Sutherland's crew decided the veteran referee's night was finished just 5:37 after it had started.

Sutherland joined the full-time NHL staff in 2000, debuting on Dec. 19, 2000 in Los Angeles. A testament to his strengths as an official, Sutherland has officiated 38 playoff games, including both the 2010 and 2011 Stanley Cup Finals.

A native of Richmond, British Columbia, Sutherland is one of many players and officials who do not wear a visor or shield attached to their helmets, as the visor is sometimes considered as much of a hindrance to a profession that requires pinpoint accuracy and quickness as it is an assistance to safety.

Although this incident appears to have been a relatively minor one as far as hockey injuries go, it does raise the issue of safety vs. convenience—security and welfare vs. placing oneself in the best position possible to get the call right or play a speeding puck.

According to an October NHLPA poll, 68 percent of NHL players presently wear visors, up from 60 percent in 2009, 29 percent in 2002 and 15 percent in 1999. The 2009 TSN report was published in the wake of Edmonton Oilers captain Ethan Moreau's scratched cornea injury that could have been prevented had Moreau worn a visor.

Though the NHL does not require shields, visors or cages, most other organized hockey leagues do, such as the American Hockey League and the entirety of NCAA Divisions I, II and III.

Clearly, Sutherland's is exactly the concussion-like injury the visor and helmet assembly was meant to protect when the hockey world first introduced the two devices decades ago, when Greg Neeld of the Toronto Toros became the first player to wear a shield in 1973.

Neeld lost his left eye after being high-sticked during a junior game earlier that year. Though drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1975, he never played a single game in the NHL due to his disability.

In 2003, NHL referee Kerry Fraser explained his and other veteran officials' reluctance to accept the helmet and visor assembly as necessary safety equipment: "When I started with the NHL back in 1973, officials did not wear helmets. It is what I am used to and I feel I my awareness is increased without a helmet."

Fraser admits he did experiment with a helmet in the mid-1990s, but felt they were inhibiting: "I felt like it slowed down my reaction time and reduced my peripheral vision."

Fraser got rid of the helmet less than a month later.

In start contrast, NHL referee Blaine Angus had no problem incorporating a helmet and visor into his daily dressing ritual, explaining that he always wore a helmet and visor when working lower level hockey in the Ontario Hockey League, where the equipment has been mandatory for as long as Angus has been officiating.

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Unlike Fraser, Angus found that reincorporating the helmet and visor into his NHL game "has not been much of an adjustment."

Fraser was one of three NHL officials covered by a grandfather clause exempting him from the NHL's mandatory helmet regulation for referees and linesmen, which can be found under Rule 31 of the NHL Rules Book.

For newer officials like Sutherland and Angus, a League-approved black helmet is required, though a clear plastic or polycarbonate visor or shield is not.

After Moreau's eye injury, he elected to don a visor for the rest of his professional career.

The question is, will Sutherland now do the same? And if not, is it time for the NHL to join college, high school and all those other leagues that make full or upper face protection mandatory?

 

Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.

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