The debate over face shields in college hockey seems to be heating up
After wearing a full face shield in college, players like Derek Stepan can transition to half face shields once they turn pro.
The fall of 2010 was a revealing time for Derek Stepan. The New York Rangers forward joined an elite group of American skaters who went straight from college hockey to the NHL without stopping at the minor leagues.
With the leap from college classes to working full time at Madison Square Garden, Stepan was also given a new tool of the trade, trading in the face mask he had worn his entire life, even at the NCAA level, for half a dollar. shield that is commonly used by many in professional hockey.
Other adult sports allow attackers and defenders to carry shields (sometimes called "crosshairs", "half shields", and "three-quarters shields"). But for the past 30 years, face masks of various designs have been must-have gear in college ranks.
That could change as the face shield transition gathers steam, to the point where some are predicting the shields will become the default item for college players starting next season.
It's been a decades-long debate, with some coaches and sports administrators predicting what they believe is a long-awaited change in college hockey, while some in the medical community call for cautious steps.
"I'm wearing a half shield right now," said Stepan, who played two seasons at the University of Wisconsin. "Kids our age in the Canadian Hockey League wear a half shield, so I don't see why college teams can't do that."
It's a sentiment shared by many on the faculty side, who see the face mask as a potential barrier to recruitment. It turned out that American college hockey is the only sport in the world that requires players 18 and older to wear a full face shield.
Some are working to change that, and have been for some time.
"I was the chairman of the rules committee in the '90s and we put this proposal out every year," said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. “It was always being returned and denied, and the thought was, 'How can you remove something and make the game more secure?' But it's a problem that never lets many people die. The challenge is to surpass the doctors”.
Perhaps the most prominent of the "remedies" in this debate has been approached from a multifaceted perspective.
Dr. Michael Stuart of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota is the only American member of the IIHF Medical Committee. He is also a hockey dad with two sons, Mark and Colin, who played college hockey at Colorado College and currently skate in the NHL. Mark is a defensive tackle with the Winnipeg Jets, while Colin has seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers and Buffalo Sabres.
"Right now, I don't think there's fear with face masks and I think you see it in the way it's played."
— Scott Sandelin, head coach, University of Minnesota-Duluth
Stuart acknowledges that coaches and administrators have good reason to push for a reduction in the size of face shields for teammates, but says these efforts must be accompanied by a deep understanding of what is at risk.
“I certainly see an advantage in that, and I respect the opinion of people who think we should take [face masks] off,” Stuart said. “But I think you have to be very careful in dictating the type of visor and dictating that the helmet stays on the head. Be willing to accept the fact that facial and dental injuries are on the rise. Unfortunately, we may be looking at a case of blindness in a student athlete that we have never seen before.
Former college players, now wearing less than a face mask, admit that severed chins and chipped teeth are part of the equation with a shield.
"There's a freak accident here and there and you can knock out some teeth, but you've got the face shield to cover your eyes," said Rangers forward Brian Boyle, who played four seasons at Boston College. "I think most of the time it would be a good idea."
At the center of the debate is an argument that, at first glance, seems counterintuitive. Coaches and many players believe that college hockey will naturally become safer with less face covering protective gear. This is based on two concepts: peripheral vision and what is known as the “gladiator effect”.
Peripheral vision problems stem from the fact that face masks have a chin that blocks the player's view of their feet and the puck. That means players have to look down to see the puck, and they're taught from a young age that skating with their heads down is a recipe for disaster.
Better vision and easier breathing are things many players like about shields.
"It helps with breathing, you can breathe easier and you don't have to worry as much about fogging up," said Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Matt Carle, who won the University of Denver's Hobey Baker Award.
After using a cage at Boston College for four years, Mike Boyle is in favor of allowing college players to carry a half shield.
"Things happen very quickly and there's a better view, so I'm sure that could help in that regard as well."
The other positive effect of shields, advocates say, is that injuries are reduced because players are more cautious about lifting bats and taking unnecessary risks when most of their face is exposed.
"The coaching position is the complete cage that gives kids a kind of gladiator effect, a feeling of invincibility that drives them to play more recklessly," said Paul Kelly, who until recently was CEO of College Hockey, Inc. one of the staunchest defenders of the rule change.
“They throw themselves on pucks or games and carry the racket in such a way that they create danger and danger on the ice, not only for themselves, but also for others. There is an increased risk of catastrophic injury for children who use a full cage instead of a visor."
Advocates of a rule change are quick to point out that college coaches voted unanimously to allow shields over face masks.
"I like it, and as a body we're all for it," Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin said.
“Part of it is keeping the sticks low. Right now, I don't think face masks are scary, and I think that reflects in the way the game plays."
According to NCAA Associate Director of Game Rules Ty Halpin, there will be more discussion and possibly a vote by the college hockey rules committee in June before a decision is made on changing the face shield at the college level. But even he admits there seems to be more momentum than ever to allow shields.
"There is still some compellingness on the medical side that this needs to be done," Halpin said.
"But the visor really eliminates the eye problems that were actually the reason for the masks."
In other words, in a nod to those who emphasize caution and careful assessment of injury risk, for many college hockey coaches and players, the end of the face mask era is their vision for the future.