Would You Lose an Eye Playing Hockey?

Would You Lose an Eye Playing Hockey?
[Collage artwork by Shellie Lewis]

In Game 1 of the New York Rangers-Pittsburgh Penguins playoff series, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was accidentally hit in the eye by teammate Marc Staal's stick. Think about that for a minute: a goaltender -- the most well-protected member of a hockey team -- was hit in the eye by his own teammate, who, when jostling for position with an opponent, raised his stick quick and hard enough to somehow slip between the bars on a goalie mask. Coincidentally, Staal was struck in the eye with a puck in 2013. He didn't wear a visor then, but he wears one now. While Lundqvist was not seriously injured, and returned to the series, this shows us how even the best-equipped player is at risk.

So it makes me shake my head when I see a rec league hockey player not wear any eye protection. I've played against guys in the Heartland Novice D-League who play without any protection over their eyes; no metal cage mask, plastic visor/cage combo or even a half-visor. I've witnessed guys in more-skilled leagues than the one I play in compete without any facial protection whatsoever. But getting an eye injury is a very real thing that can happen to anyone, regardless of how good they might think they are.

Back in February, a C-level hockey player in a game at Johnny's Ice House took a stick to the face and sustained a catastrophic eye injury. The story has circulated in rinks and pro shops in and around Chicago. This player, who I will not name, had three surgeries to his eye -- including a cornea transplant -- and will need several more operations. His teammates set up a GoFundMe page to help offset the medical costs You can check out the page here if you are interested in donating.

It is a sad to see anyone get hurt, and inspiring to see the hockey community band together and help one of their own. But ultimately, this was a very stupid injury, because it was wholly preventable if the player had worn full-facial protection. From what I was told, this guy wore a half-visor, which will protect your eyes and nose from a head-on-impact. However, sticks and pucks can still get under the visor and hurt your face and eyes. (I've even seen my own teammate, who wears just a visor, get hit in the mouth with a puck two times.)


Chris Progner, here shown with Team Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics, was struck in the eye with a stick in a 2012 NHL game. That ultimately ended his career. [Photo Credit: Creative Commons / VanCityAllie]

Anyone who plays hockey needs to be reminded of Chris Pronger, the Hall of Fame defenseman who was a terror on the ice. Pronger, like many who came into the NHL in the early 1990s, did not wear a visor. At 6'6" and 220 pounds, Pronger made life miserable for opposing forwards during his 18 years in the NHL. But his career was ended prematurely when an errant stick struck him in the eye in an October 2011 game. Even one of the biggest, toughest, meanest, most badass hockey players in history wasn't invulnerable to an eye injury. Pronger did attempt a short comeback, wearing a visor, but lingering effects of his eye injury, exacerbated by a hit from an opponent in a November 2011 game, made him quit for good.

In my own short, two-and-a-half year hockey odyssey, I remember numerous instances where facial protection has saved me. I remember wiping out in a class and landing face-first on the ice. I recall a game where a stick whacked me in the face, leaving a nice big scratch on my Bauer Concept II face mask. (Better my face mask than my face, right?) I also recall a puck hitting me square between the eyes, but deflecting off my mask. Considering that this was shot by my own teammate, I couldn't help but laugh. Had I not been wearing facial protection, I guarantee that I would not have been laughing. Even if you are the best skater on the ice -- which I certainly am not -- you are still subject to a mishap caused by an opponent or a teammate.

The bottom line is that hockey is dangerous, and full facial protection can virtually eliminate the risk of eye injuries. Sticks are hard. The puck is hard. The ice, boards, glass and goal posts are hard. Any of these things can hurt you. Protect your eyes because they don't grow back!

Note: This story was updated with corrected information about the injured C-level player. 

RELATED: Advice on choosing the right facial protection.

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