The Tampa Bay Lightning's 2011-12 training camp is looming. Players are already practicing together in Brandon at the Ice Sports Forum, while the official start of training camp will be two-weeks from now. It's worth a reminder that there is a forthcoming challenge to Lightning players, handed down from the front office last spring.
For some on the roster, it won't be a "challenge" whatsoever. For others, it will be a cumbersome transition if they consider participating in the first place.
That challenge isn't an on-ice benchmark to meet or exceed. It's not a franchise milestone. It's a personal decision and voluntary responsibility.
I'm talking about face shields.
In April, general manager Steve Yzerman said that'd he'd be asking his players to use facial protection for next season. Many of the younger players already do, so it's not an issue for the likes of Steven Stamkos, Viktor Hedman, Teddy Purcell and Dana Tyrell. Others (hello, Ryan Malone) stated that they don't have any intentions of wearing a visor.
The story of Yzerman's request last season came to light on the heels of team captain Vincent Lecavalier's scratched-cornea, suffered during a win against the Chicago Blackhawks. It also was presented after Manny Malhotra suffered a gruesome eye-injury a few weeks earlier.
But now it's months later. A new Stanley Cup Champion was minted in June, the summer has come and gone. Will the sense of urgency and necessity exist like it did in April? Or has the threat seemingly subsided, as there is now time and distance from last season's eye-injury incidents?
When it comes to players safety at the moment, the league focus generally resides with head-shots and concussions. That is just as worthy a focus as eye-protection for the players. In both cases, the gung-ho, on-ice machismo that some players try to show - that they're tougher than the next guy by not using a visor - needs to be reigned in. You can be tough without being stupid and taking a unnecescessary chance.
The National Hockey League has been doing what it can to implement rules to curtail head shots and curb concussions, no rule is going to stop eye injuries unless the league makes facial protectors mandatory. The NHL, however, has shown itself to be slow (if not entirely weak-willed) to improve the status-quo of player safety in the past, and the NHL Players Association has often been against rules or regulations shoved down its members throats that infringe on personal freedom - even if those rules are meant to protect the players.
Lets move back to the Lightning. While the request came down from the front office, it's hard to dismiss the requests of a man who commands the amount of respect that Steve Yzerman does. Not only does he have players respects for on-ice accomplishments, but he has the experience to draw upon when speaking of the importance of visors and facial shields
During the Detroit Red Wings 2004 Stanley Cup playoff appearance against the Calgary Flames, Yzerman sustained a scratched cornea and broken eye socket to his left eye after taking a puck to the face during game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinal:
He now finds himself in a position to protect players from being injured in such a horrific fashion, His request is voluntary, but it shouldn't be ignored or brushed aside.
Yzerman also already seen another NHL team executive go to his players and make a similar plea: Yzerman's mentor, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, made the request in 2005 after there were two marquee players sidelined after eye injuries -- Wings defenseman Kris Draper and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mats Sundin:
With all the recent scares, Holland would like to see more players wear visors. In fact, he has recently stated that he plans on talking to every player on the Red Wings about wearing one.
"I just believe it protects the players more," he said. "The league has done a good job of keeping the sticks down (a significant source of trouble a few years ago). But nowadays, after you see what happened to Steve Yzerman, and Draper, and you look at Mats Sundin, the puck is just flying all over the place.
"I just think it (a visor) gives you a little more protection."
Six years after Holland went public with his plans, visors are still an issue.
Face shields may be an adjustment that players have to get used to (or re-acquainted with) the obstruction of a visor hovering over their face. But it's not like a face shield prevents players from scoring goals. I'd think Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby (among others) have been evidence enough of that in recent years.
Oh, and a visor may not have stopped a puck from breaking Stamkos' nose during the Eastern Conference Finals last May, but it did prevent the incident from having a more horrific outcome.