PHILADELPHIA – Chris Pronger's sad descent from All-Star defenseman to bedridden days in dark rooms to ease throbbing headaches and occasional bouts of depression can be traced to one wayward stick to his right eye.
Pronger lost his peripheral vision. He can't run, or even skate hard. The former Philadelphia Flyers' star who keyed the team's run to the 2010 Stanley Cup finals has been advised not to return to hockey.
But given the chance to become a better-safe-than-sorry spokesman for the use of protective shields, the kind that might have saved his career and his vision, Pronger balked. If his two young sons wanted to one day play in the NHL without visors, Pronger wouldn't stand in their way.
"If he's over 18, he's more than welcome to," Pronger said. "It's his life. You can advise and consent, but you can't make somebody do anything."
Not even an injury that put his career on hold turned Pronger into a staunch advocate for visors. He was even hurt in vain — the NHL and NHLPA have still not mandated visors, even as preventable injuries are still prevalent in the rough-and-tumble league.
Pronger talked about his dark days only two days after New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal was struck in the eye by a deflected puck. Staal, who wasn't wearing a visor, writhed on the ice and screamed in agony. He held his bloody face while he was down and when he skated off the ice, assisted by a Rangers trainer, toward the dressing room.
"It's scary," Rangers coach John Tortorella said.
As scary as it was to watch, Staal's injury and Pronger's grim road to recovery should act as reminders of the dangers of playing a high-impact sport without facial protection. Staal might be lucky. The 26-year-old is sidelined indefinitely but doctors are optimistic he'll make a full recovery.
While the league has long supported the use of visors, the NHLPA has let each player make the final call. The players' association has been proactive in educating players that wearing a visor decreases the risk of suffering an eye injury.
"While the players support visor use being a matter of individual choice, we continue to regularly educate the players on the benefits of wearing a visor so that each player can make an informed decision," Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to the executive director, said. "We will further discuss visors and other important equipment-related matters at our player meetings this summer."
Still, mandatory use of visors was not legislated into the labor agreement that ended the lockout.
Education — and perhaps, the impact of career-shortening injuries to players like Pronger, Bryan Berard and Ian Laperriere — has sunk in to stubborn players in a macho league. The NHLPA reported approximately 73 percent of players are wearing visors this season, up from about 69 percent in 2011-12. For context, The Hockey News reported that in 2001-02, visors were worn by 28 percent of players.
Rangers center Micheal Haley is one of the holdouts. He said not even witnessing Staal's gruesome injury would soften his stance against visors.
"As long as I have a choice, I'll not wear one," he said.
Haley fills the increasingly diminished role of team enforcer and said he can't drop the gloves and throw punches at a shield.
"If you get into a fight with a visor and you're smacking visors around, it's not good for your hands," he said. "Personally, I don't like wearing a visor at all."
Staal wore a visor in junior hockey and many players wore them in the AHL, where visors have been mandatory since 2006. Some type of cage or visor is mandatory in all levels of hockey except the NHL. If shields are eventually required in a collective bargaining agreement, players hope there is at least some sort of grandfather clause, like there once was for helmets.
Penguins forward Craig Adams, the team's NHLPA rep, hated using a visor when he played in Europe during the 2004 lockout and refused to add it to his helmet when he returned to the NHL.
"I think it's normal for people to talk about it and people should talk about it. It's an issue," he said. "At the same time, if we were concerned about protecting our faces we would all wear cages and we don't. So even the guys that wear half-visors don't wear full cages. What if they break their jaw or their nose or whatever? I think there's a lot of things that we could do to protect the players more but there's a line somewhere."
Some players complain about sweat residue, shaved ice buildup, or that they can't see the puck near their skate. Others cite general discomfort. But there are still so-called tough guys out there who thumb their nose at safety and feel playing without a shield is integral piece of an identity that can't be easily surrendered, who let commonsense take a backseat to machismo.
Of course, a shield isn't foolproof, much in the same way wearing helmets can't guarantee the prevention of concussions.
But it's a start, and an easy fix — even if the NHLPA has to protect players from their own warped sense of choice.
"The problem is you go down a slippery slope of allowing the league to start implementing their own rules," Pronger said. "What are they going to change next?"
Maybe just a culture that allows the next generation of Prongers to walk away on their own terms and live retirement in good health and with sound minds.
AP Sports Writers Will Graves and freelancer Mike Haim contributed to this report.
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