The fall of 2010 was an eye-opening time for Derek Stepan. The New York Rangers forward joined an elite group of American skaters that made the transition directly from college hockey to the NHL without a stopover in the minor leagues.
In making the jump from college classes to full-time work at Madison Square Garden, Stepan also received a new tool of the trade, exchanging the full facemask he’d worn all of his life, including at the NCAA level, for a half shield that is commonly worn by many in pro hockey.
Other adult levels of the sport allow shields (sometimes called “visors,” “half shields,” and “three-quarter shields”) to be worn by forwards and defensemen. But for the past 30 years or so, full facemasks of varying design have been required equipment in the college ranks.
That may be changing, as a transition away from full facial protection is gaining some steam, to the point where some predict that shields will be standard issue for college players as soon as next season.
It’s a debate that has been around for decades, and has some coaches and athletic administrators envisioning what they feel is a long-overdue change in college hockey, while some in the medical community are urging cautious steps forward.
“I wear a half shield now,” said Stepan, who played two seasons at the University of Wisconsin. “Guys our age in the Canadian Hockey League are wearing half shields, so I don’t see why the college teams can’t do it.”
It's a sentiment echoed by many on the college side who see the full mask as a potential impediment to recruiting. It has been noted that American college hockey is the only level of the sport in the world where players over the age of 18 must wear full facial protection.
Some are working to change that, and have been for some time.
“I was chair of the rules committee back in the ’90s and we used to send this proposal forward every year,” said Joe Bertagna, the commissioner of Hockey East. “It was always sent back and denied, and the thinking was, 'how can you take something away and make the game safer?' But it’s an issue that a number of people have never let die. The challenge is to get past the medical people.”
Perhaps the most prominent of the “medical people” in this debate approached it from a multi-pronged perspective.
Dr. Michael Stuart of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota is the lone American member of the IIHF’s Medical Committee. He’s also a hockey dad, with two sons, Mark and Colin, who played college hockey at Colorado College, and who currently skate in the NHL. Mark is a defenseman with the Winnipeg Jets, while Colin has spent time with the Atlanta Thrashers and Buffalo Sabres.
“Right now, I don't think there is any fear with the full masks, and i think you see that in the way the game is played.”
Stuart acknowledges that coaches and administrators have solid reasoning in urging a reduction in the size of the facial protection for collegians, but he says that such efforts should accompany a full realization of what is at risk.
“I certainly see some advantage to it, and I respect the opinions of people who think that we should take [full facemasks] off,” Stuart said. “But I think you have to be very careful about mandating the type of visor, mandating that the helmet stays on the head. Be prepared to accept the fact that there likely will be more facial and dental injuries. Unfortunately we may see a case of blindness to a student-athlete where we have never seen that before.”
Former college players who now use less than a full facemask admit that cuts to the chin and chipped teeth are part of the equation with a shield.
“There’s a freak accident here and there, and you can get some teeth knocked out, but you have the face shield on to cover your eyes,” said Rangers forward Brian Boyle, who played four seasons at Boston College. “I think for the most part it would be a pretty good idea.”
At the heart of the debate is an argument that seems counter intuitive at first blush. Coaches, and many players, believe that college hockey will naturally become safer with less protective equipment covering the face. This is based on two concepts: peripheral vision, and something called the “gladiator effect.”
The concerns about peripheral vision come from the fact that full facemasks have a chin cup, which blocks a player’s view toward their feet, and the puck. That means that players have to look down to see the puck, and they’re taught from the youngest ages that skating with your head down is a recipe for disaster.
Better vision and easier breathing are things many players like about shields.
“It does help with your breathing, you can breathe better and you don’t have to worry about fogging up as much,” said Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Matt Carle, who won the Hobey Baker Award at the University of Denver.
“Things happen so fast, and there is better visibility, so I’m sure it could help in that sense as well.”
The other positive effect of shields, proponents say, is that injuries go down because players are more cautious about raising sticks and taking needless risks if more of their face is exposed.
“The coaches’ position is the full cage gives kids kind of a gladiator effect, a feeling of invincibility that leads them to play the game in a more reckless manner,” said Paul Kelly, who until recently was executive director of College Hockey, Inc., and one of the most staunch advocates for the rules change.
“They throw themselves into pucks or into plays, and carry their stick in such a way that they create hazards and dangers on the ice, not only to themselves but to others as well. There is an increased risk of catastrophic injury for kids wearing a full cage as opposed to a visor.”
Proponents of a rule change are quick to point out that college coaches have voiced unanimous support of allowing shields as opposed to full facemasks.
“I like it, and as a body I think we’re all in favor of it,” Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said.
“Part of it is keeping sticks down. Right now, I don’t think there is any fear with the full masks, and I think you see that in the way the game is played.”
According to Ty Halpin, the associate director of playing rules for the NCAA, there will be more discussion, and possibly a vote of the college hockey rules committee in June, before any decision is made about a change in facial protection at the college level. But even he acknowledges that there is seemingly more momentum for allowing shields than there has ever been.
“There is still some convincing on the medical side that this is what needs to be done,” Halpin said.
“But the visor really takes away the eye issues, which were really the reason for the facemasks in the first place.”
In other words, with a nod to those who stress caution and careful consideration of the risk of injury, for many college hockey coaches and players, an end to the era of full facemasks is their vision of the future.
Jess Myers is a contributing editor to InsideCollegeHockey.com.
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