Chris Pronger is a tough man. I've watched him play hundreds of hockey games, and before Monday night, I don't ever think I've seen a scared look on his face.
He's the quintessential face of ruggedness and toughness in the NHL, throwing elbows around like kids on Halloween are asking for them, absolutely demolishing opposing players as they approach his net and just generally playing the part as the league's villain. Talks of Chris Pronger ever being scared of anything are met with laughter and more Chuck Norris-style jokes than you can handle.
But on Monday, Mikhail Grabovski almost scooped his eye ball right out of his head. And Pronger was scared. Absolutely frightened, actually. You can see the terror right there in his face. I was 200 feet above the ice and I could hear him screaming in pain ... with 19,000-plus people in the building.
The man has played in the NHL since 1993, and throughout the past 18 seasons, he's not worn any sort of protection on his face. That'll all change when he returns to the lineup in a few weeks.
"Well, when Chris comes back, he'll be wearing a visor," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren told us on Monday night. "We made it mandatory in the American Hockey League and to me it's not an issue. Players should wear them. Obviously some of these players have been around a long time and for whatever reason they don't want to wear them. When Chris comes back, he'll be wearing a visor."
The general concerns with visors stem from the fear that players will lose vision on the ice. It's just something that gets in the way, and as a (bad) hockey player myself, I understand the same fear. All hockey players understand it, even if they choose to wear face protection anyhow. I have friends who don't wear any protection, actually, even after taking pucks to the face. It's all about seeing the puck and seeing the play and how your vision impacts your on-ice performance, whether it's in the NHL or in the Thursday night beer league.
But Holmgren, who has plenty of visible scars of his own on his face from his playing days before the advent of visors and even helmets, doesn't find that to be an excuse.
"I think the improvements on the visor over the last number of years, compared to what it was ten or 15 years ago, are tremendous," he said. "Other than getting a little sweat in there and some water on the visor, I don't think it's a big issue. I'm not sure our doctor would clear him to play unless he wears a visor. I think Chris was really scared after this incident tonight, and I would like to believe he'll want to wear one."
I would believe he'll want to wear one.
Notice that? He's saying two things at the same time here, both that Pronger will wear a visor and that he hopes Pronger will want to wear one. That's to say they didn't have the visor discussion, but Holmgren is essentially mandating it regardless of what the player wants. In fact, the doctors are mandating it too.
Just about every other major hockey league in the world mandates that players some sort of facial protection. In college it's a full cage, and in most other leagues the visor is the protection of choice. Now a star player in the NHL is going to be forced to wear some sort of protection, even if he doesn't want to.
This happens quite a bit, m of course. Players return from facial injuries with the full cage or a shield for a few games before reverting back to normal -- for whatever insane reason they can find to justify such a decision.
One of Pronger's teammates is really the perfect example of this. Ian Laperriere's career ended following the 2010 playoffs after he took a slap shot to his unshielded face. Earlier in that same season, Laperriere took a shot to the face against Buffalo, lost several teeth and then returned for the third period of the game -- with that full shield.
But after a few games, the shield was gone. It was about being comfortable on the ice for Lappy, damn the protection that ultimately could've saved his career.
"When you're used to something, you're comfortable with it, it's tough to change," Laperriere said Monday morning on 94WIP in Philly. "We're animals of habit, you know? We like our own style. We've been doing that for -- Prongs has been in the league for 18, 19 years, I played for 16 years and I didn't wear a shield."
"I know it sounds stupid and macho, but that's what makes us who we are and that's the way it is. ... That craziness, the edge we want, we're a little bit different obviously. But that difference is what makes us professional. The difference between me willing to take that risk and another guy who had more skill but wasn't willing to take that risk and never made it."
Not protecting your face -- your livelihood, really -- is what helps a player make it in professional sports. Laperriere is one of the nicest people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting, but this is the sort of backwards logic we're dealing with here. It bridges generations, too.
As many people, especially those in St. Louis and Philadelphia, will remember, Craig MacTavish foolishly skated completely helmetless as late as 1997 thanks to a grandfather clause instituted when helmets were mandated across the league in 1979. No helmet. In the National Hockey League. Only 14 years ago.
It's clear that players cannot be trusted to protect themselves, and that's why the NHL needs to do it for them (without a grandfather clause too, obviously). Really, from a purely business perspective, the NHL and its teams are absolutely foolish for not mandating face protection.
Look at Laperriere, for example. He's no longer playing the game, instead working with the Flyers coaching staff and in community relations, but the organization is still paying him over $1 million a year. By the time his contract runs out, the team will have paid him for two full seasons that he didn't even play a game. All because he didn't want to wear a visor.
In Pronger's case, the Flyers would owe him somewhere in the range of $26 million over the next six seasons were he to be forced into retirement from this injury, thanks to the 35-plus contract that'll ensure he doesn't "officially retire" until that deal reaches its end. (It's worth noting, of course, that he's not expected to retire; in fact, he'll be back in a few weeks if all goes well. Just outlining the scenario had this been worse, which it easily could have been.)
But even ignoring the business side of things, the NHL is a league that claims to be all about player safety. To allow players to skate around with their eyes open to contact from pucks and sticks and anything else makes absolutely no sense, and it's completely contradictory with anything involving protection of the players.
These men are foolish and they're not going to make these types of changes on their own, barring some horrifying incident like Pronger experienced on Monday night. And as Laperriere proves, even that type of incident isn't always enough to change opinions.
Sometimes, people need to be protected from themselves. The NHL needs to make visors mandatory, and they need to do it yesterday.