The NHL and its players often haven’t seen eye to eye on myriad issues, especially how the game is played and its economics, but it looks like they finally, and thankfully, share the same vision on . . . vision.
The sides agreed last week to make eye-protecting shields mandatory, pending approval by the Board of Governors. The American Hockey League, Canadian junior leagues, and US college hockey made it mandatory years ago, and with a rubber stamp here in the weeks ahead, the Lords of the Boards once and for all are expected to have logic playing on their side, too.
The NHL made helmets mandatory 34 years ago, hand in hand with the World Hockey Association’s folding/merger. Similar to the helmet rule, the change to eye protection, if approved, will be grandfathered. All first-time NHLers will be forced to wear visors, while any player with 26 or more games of NHL experience will be allowed the luxury (stretch in terms) to make his own decision.
Ex-Bruins forward Craig MacTavish, recently named the Oilers’ general manager, was the last NHLer to suit up without a helmet as a member of the Blues in the spring of ’97.
Why did it take an additional 30-something years for visors to be mandated? There is no reasonable, prudent, logical answer to that one. No NHLer for decades has suited up without a protective cup. It took until ’79 for players to adopt mandatory helmet use. The vision thing fell behind testicles and brains on the game’s safety punch list. Interpret that as you will.
Like a lot of NHL things, particularly on the business side, the slow acceptance of eye protection traces back to Original Six practices, how the game has always been played. But with so little of the game today resembling what once was, and with gruesome eye injuries such as the one sustained by the Rangers’ Marc Staal this season as what might be remembered as a signature moment, the change was inevitable, painfully overdue. Commissioner Gary Bettman has long been an advocate of visors. Ditto for Paul Kelly, the former executive director of the Players Association.
Overall, Bettman, the Lords, and a conga line of PA directors for the most part quietly acquiesced on the issue, leaving it to the players to decide for themselves.
Truth is, much of the working help didn’t care, even while an increasing percentage of them entered the league the last 10-20 years with visors in place from their playing days elsewhere.
Some of those new arrivals, though few in recent years, couldn’t wait to shed the visors, treating them as if they were restrictive training wheels.
Essentially, time won out on this one, with 100 percent of league newbies already weaned on visor wear, and some three-quarters of NHLers already equipped with visors this season.
The move to approve last week was monumental, but by and large incremental. Common sense simply prevailed.
Hard to believe now, but in the ’70s, prior to helmets being adopted, there was a stigma attached to head protection in the NHL. Many old-timers initially viewed helmet wearers as cowardly.
The fact that most newly arriving European players wore them only fueled the disdain for helmets among some NHL vets, as well as many print and broadcast commentators. The Europeans were generically referred to as “Chicken Swedes’’ for playing the game with a helmet, and similar pejoratives greeted those who later came along with visors.
Again, thankfully, it’s a league that has matured immensely vis a vis player health and safety, and last week’s decision should prove a lasting growth ring.
Bruins coach Claude Julien, who nearly lost an eye to injury during his AHL playing days, sounded relieved last week when he noted emphatically “there is no stigma’’ attached to visors in today’s game, adding that he encourages his players to wear them.
“I’m one of those guys that really believes that when a younger player comes up . . . why take it off?” said Julien. “I know there’s been some accidents with the visor, but there’s been more things, incidents saved by the visor, than there has been from the other side of it — like a seatbelt in a car. How many lives does it save?
“I think it’s a good thing that they’re encouraging the visor and that it’s going to be grandfathered in. I believe in it and I’m on that side.’’
New rules may be on the way
Eye protection wasn’t the only change player and league reps agreed to adopt last week when they met in Toronto. Again, pending approval by the Board of Governors, some of what we could see in the 2013-14 season, which, by the way, kicks off in a little less than four months:
■ A slimmed-down net. The opening will remain the standard 24 square feet, but the base will be trimmed, tucking in the bow shape at the side of the net, and pulling the rear of the net’s base closer to the goal line. In theory, attacking players should find more room to wheel behind the net for playmaking and stuff attempts. In short, Gretzky’s office gets bigger.
■ Hybrid icing, long a talking point, will be tested in the AHL and could be adopted quickly in the NHL. Rather than players dashing in a footrace all the way to the goal line for “touchups,’’ linesmen will judge which player is first to cross an imaginary line traced horizontally across and through the right and left faceoff circles. Dangerous rearwall collisions should be a thing of the past. It’s a compromise between big wipeouts and automatic “no-touch’’ icing.
■ Slimmed-down goalie equipment (pause now while your eyes roll). No specifics on this one, but both sides want a subcommittee to scrutinize goalie gear, as well as the gear worn by the skaters. Look, we all know goalies especially should be asked to shed inches and pounds. But like visors, it won’t happen until players get serious about it. Without question, overequipped goalies, in tandem with their elite skill, are stripping the game of offense. It should not be so difficult to score goals. League vice president Colin Campbell: “We hope to really supply some teeth to the goaltending situation now.’’
Bench boss not in range
No smoke, blue or otherwise, from the Madison Square Garden chimney to signify who’ll replace John Tortorella as Rangers coach. Both Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, the latter of whom is general manager Glen Sather’s heir apparent, have evinced interest. Alain Vigneault, fired inVancouver shortly after the Canucks were again eliminated in the first round, is believed to have his hat in the ring. If Messier shifts gears to coach, that could mean greater responsibility for assistant GM Jeff Gorton, who held the GM job on Causeway Street in the days after Mike O’Connell was fired and Peter Chiarelli hired. Hard to read how the coaching gig comes together. Gretzky and Messier have the star power that plays well with the Broadway Blueshirts. And if Messier really wants the job, how does he respond if Sather and Gorton opt for someone else? Could be Mess-y.
The Stars, with a new owner (Tom Gaglardi) in place and five years of postseason DNQs in the books, last week rebranded the franchise look with a new uniform. The color scheme ties together victory green, white, and a prominent silver star logo. Victory green? Not something you should ask a color-blind puck chronicler to describe. A much bigger issue in Big D is how new GM Jim Nill recasts a popgun offense and overall roster depth that went 22-22-4 this season and missed a No. 8 seed by seven points. To start, Nill must name a coach to replace the fired Glen Gulutzan. Nill said during the rebranding news conference that he is “very close’’ to naming the new bench boss, with the names Vigneault and Lindy Ruff, ex-Sabres, prominently in the chatterline there, too.
Forty-eight hours after the Cup is awarded, NHL clubs are allowed to go into “buyout’’ mode, sending players packing (generally with a one-third salary reduction) up until the start of free agency — this year bumped from July 1 to 5. The Bruins, though fairly tight to the salary cap (reduced to $64.3 million) are not expected to cashier anyone. The biggest names being bandied about for possible sendoffs: Brad Richards (Rangers), Vincent Lecavalier (Lightning), and Ilya Bryzgalov (Flyers). All three are on huge money deals. From the buyout’s “fait accompli’’ file: old friend Tomas Kaberle, who has one year left ($4.5 million) with the Canadiens in the contract they inherited from the Hurricanes. Kaberle will be paid $3 million, split evenly over two years, not to wear the CH. Another ex-Bruin defenseman, Steve Montador, has $4.1 million and two years left on his deal with the Blackhawks. His retirement package will be roughly $700,000 for each of the next four years.
Bill Zito, agent for Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, attended ex-Yale coach Tim Taylor’s memorial service at Harvard June 1. Former Boston University coach Jack Parker gave the eulogy, which Zito described as “poignant, respectful, funny, and gracious . . . just beautiful . . . he did a very nice thing for his friend.’’ Zito, a 1987 Yale grad, played for three seasons at Yale and later became an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin while in Madison for law school. “Tim was a second dad to me, really, a great guy. I am still heartbroken,’’ said Zito. “Such a kind, gentle, thoughtful man. He helped me get the job at Wisconsin, and then, when I got into this [agent] business, he helped me make all the first connections that are so important.’’ Many of Taylor’s pals were at the draft combine last weekend and unable to attend the service, noted Zito, and a more casual ceremony will be held this summer, be it at a local hotel or golf club.
Gregory Campbell’s last stand, his gritty performance in the seconds after Evgeni Malkin’s shot broke his leg in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals at the Garden Wednesday night, rekindled memories of hard-hitting Maple Leafs blue liner Bobby Baun. Nearly 50 years ago (April 24, 1964) Baun broke a leg in Game 6 of the Cup Final against the Red Wings. With teeth gritted, he returned in overtime and banged in the game-winner to tie the series, 3-3. The Leafs won the series in Game 7, for what was their third Cup in as many seasons. They won again in ’67 and have yet to win since.
Zito, also the agent for Tim Thomas, said he knows of no plans the 39-year-old ex-Bruin might have for returning to play in Europe next season. Rumors last weekend had Thomas, currently property of the Islanders, contemplating another tour overseas. The two-time Vezina winner played in Finland and Sweden for years before he finally cracked the Black and Gold lineup at age 32 midway through the 2005-06 season . . . The Bruins will bring their top kids to Wilmington again this summer for their annual development camp. Sessions will run July 5-9 at Ristuccia Arena and will be open to the public free of charge . . . And this from the your-best-players-must-be-your-best-players department: Headed into Game 4 of the Los Angeles-Chicago series, key Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane stood a meager 0-2—2 over his last seven games. But he responded with one goal and a beefy seven shots on net Thursday in a 3-2 win that gave Chicago a commanding 3-1 series lead . . . Ex-Bruin Brandon Bochenski is back in Minnesota for the summer, after posting 20-20—40 in 48 games in his third season with Astana Barys (KHL) . . . The last time two Original Six clubs met in the Cup final? Canadiens vs. Rangers in 1979. Bruins assistant coach Doug Jarvis and NBC commentator Brian Engblom were among the Habs who wrapped it up in five games . . . Makes little sense for the Penguins to hold on to Marc-Andre Fleury after figuring he wasn’t up to the task to face the Bruins in Game 3. Only 27 years and with a Cup (’09) on his résumé, he should be fairly easy to move — even with a salary of $5.75 million . . . Fleury’s wage, by the way, is the low end of what Rask is expected to receive in his upcoming free agent (restricted) talks with the Bruins. The guess here is four years for a total payout in the $25 million-$28 million range . . . Ex-Bruins coach Rick Bowness, tossed aside after one year to bring in Brian Sutter, last week was named associate coach in Tampa Bay, where his 24 years of coaching experience should be an immense help to NHL rookie bench boss Jon Cooper. Good guy, “Bones.” He served seven years as an assistant in Vancouver, following a seven-year hitch in Phoenix . . . Looks like point man Mark Streit will not re-sign with the Islanders. Ditto for ex-Bruins forward Brad Boyes. Streit has been the Isles’ captain, which means his ‘C’ now likely will go to his close pal, superstar-to-be John Tavares. During the lockout, Tavares went to Bern, Switzerland, to play on the same team as the Swiss-born Streit . . . Late-blooming Bryan Bickell, lighting it up with the Blackhawks in the postseason, will cash in big as an unrestricted free agent. The 6-foot-4-inch, 235-pound winger is only 27 and could see at least a four-fold increase over his current payout of $600,000 a year.