Shielded From Harm

Those who follow college hockey might have gotten a surprise if they watched the 2008 World Junior Championships. Whether the player was Wisconsin’s Kyle Turris, Minnesota’s Ryan Flynn, Michigan’s Max Pacioretty, or New Hampshire’s James vanRiemsdyk, almost every college hockey player participating in the World Junior Championships had ditched the ubiquitous full face mask of college hockey for the half shield seen so often in the NHL.

Ask the NCAA why it requires the full facemask in college hockey and the cited reason is injury risk.

“Basically, it stems from findings of a study done by Dr. Alan Ashare that shows full shields prevent more than 70,000 eye and face injuries per year,” said NCAA spokeswoman Jennifer Kearns. “We’ve done some research through our injury surveillance systems and it has proven that these masks prevent a lot of eye and face injuries and that there haven’t been any blinding eye injuries in any player who was wearing full face protection. So, the NCAA, our membership has decided that this is a good way to go to protect our student-athletes and their eyes and their vision. It’s just a precaution.”

Wisconsin's Kyle Turris, pictured here with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, is among the college players who prefer the half shield (photo: Melissa Wade).

Wisconsin’s Kyle Turris, pictured here with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, is among the college players who prefer the half shield (photo: Melissa Wade).

The use of face shields in the college game is a relatively recent development. The NCAA started recommending the use of face shields at the start of the 1978-79 season. Eastern teams started wearing the face shields in 1979, and the NCAA required their use by all teams at the start of the 1980-81 season.

For a brief period, you could have two teams sporting different levels of protection, and sometimes problems arose. When the New Hampshire Wildcats played the Ohio State Buckeyes in November 1979, the Wildcats sported face shields while the Buckeyes did not. Several fights broke out, and the Wildcats ended up forfeiting two games to the Buckeyes.

This incident seems to bolster the opinion of Dr. Michael Stuart, the chief medical officer for USA Hockey, who feels that if the NCAA ever allows visors instead of full face shields, it has to be universal.

“Part of the problem as I see it is uniformity; my honest opinion is, and I’m not saying you should, but if the NCAA wants to make a change, that change should be all or none, meaning everybody wears a visor, or everybody wears full protection,” said Stuart. “If some players decided to wear full facial protection and some decide to wear visors, then the argument that the sticks may come down only applies to part of the group, so those who do not have full facial protection are at increased risk.”

Given that more and more college players go on to play in professional leagues, an argument could be made that players should start to get used to playing without the cage earlier. Some also believe that use of full cages has led to an increase in high-sticking and roughing penalties, and a decrease in respect between players.

Denver Pioneers sophomore forward Tyler Ruegsegger found that wearing the visor in the World Junior Championships did make him more aware of his stick. “It definitely makes you more aware of keeping your stick down on the ice when you get high-sticking penalties, things like that.”

“From a player’s standpoint, or at least from what they tell me, they are more respectful, at least with high-sticking, if you are not wearing a face mask and your opponent is not wearing a face mask,” said Stuart. “There’s a lot of interesting and I think valid reasons why you would want to go to a visor compared to a face mask.

“Some proponents in the NCAA would say you should take the mask off because a full face mask gives players a sense of protection so they become more reckless, especially with high-sticking, and they become more reckless with body-checking and using their head as a weapon, therefore increasing the risk of concussion or cervical spine injury, although that has never been proven. Numerous studies have not shown an increased risk of injury to the head or neck in players who wear full facial protection.”

If you ask the players, you get a variety of opinions, although the fact that many players abandoned the full shield at the World Junior Championships seems to indicate a lot would do the same in the NCAA if they had the option.

“I hate the cage,” said Wisconsin Badgers’ star freshman Kyle Turris. “It’s something that you have to play with, but I really don’t like it. It feels like it always gets in the way. It’s just not very comfortable. I feel like it obstructs my vision a little bit too, but that’s part of college. It’s just something that would be nice if the NCAA looked into. I would definitely wear a half shield if I had the opportunity.”

Ruegsegger has a more mixed opinion on the half shield, and is fine with wearing the cage in the college game.

“As far as the cage and the half shield, I like the cage,” said Ruegsegger. “I don’t know; it’s my preference personally. The divider sometimes gets fogged up or scratched, so I prefer the cage.”

Of course, when Ruegsegger has participated in camps with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he has worn the half shield.

“I’ll do what the Leafs say to do,” laughs Ruegsegger. “I mean, you get hit in the jaw here or there, stuff like that, but if the other players are playing smart, with their stick down, I think it’s all right.”

Despite the fact that many like Turris would probably go to a half shield if the NCAA allowed it, the NCAA hasn’t looked at it at this point.

“The staff liaison who works with the NCAA rules committee says that this does come up now and then because of the professionals not using a full face protector, but there hasn’t been anything proposed to change it,” stated Kearns. “Our member institutions, just to make sure our players are protected and safe, that’s what our membership has decided is best for our student-athletes.”

Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky says that it has been looked at, but he doesn’t see the face shields coming off.

“They’ve looked at it for years, and as soon as the medical people get involved, and the lawyers get involved, the discussion ends. There’s no question that someone’s health is without a doubt the top priority for our medical people, our trainers, the safety standards people, so as a result, the health of the student-athlete comes first.”

While the use of visors does decrease the incidence of injury to the face or eye, it doesn’t completely eliminate it. Players have suffered serious injuries even while wearing the visor. In his studies, Stuart found that 95 percent of players at the NHL level injure their face at some point in their career, including facial fractures, eye injuries, lost teeth, and lacerations.

A study by the American Medical Association found there was a 2.31 times greater risk of players sustaining a facial laceration or dental injury when wearing a half shield vs. a full shield.

Stuart believes there are valid arguments for both using a half shield and using a full shield, but also indicates that if the NCAA goes to the half shield, there would be more injuries.

“I agree with a lot of the arguments on both sides, but it’s clear to me that if you remove full facial protection in the NCAA, you will have an increased incidence of injury to the face, and accompanying those injures to the face could be injuries to the eye, and those could be serious and permanent. Maybe it won’t happen, but there certainly is that risk.”