Anyone who watches hockey knows players can’t live in fear of injury, a negative thought which might compromise performance.
It’s a given: A damaged knee, shoulder or ankle can usually be repaired and so the risk of danger is accepted.
But eyes are a different story.
Players have had careers ended by an errant high stick (such as ex-Flyer defenseman Chris Pronger) or deflected puck. Vision is precious, yet even though the NHL wants all of its players to wear eye protection, a handful choose not to.
The Flyers’ Chris Stewart is one of only 19 players out of 672 left in the NHL still not wearing a plastic visor.
Like former Flyer forward Wayne Simmonds, Stewart found wearing a shield somewhat compromised the efficiency of his role on the team, from occasionally dropping the gloves for a fight to having the visor fog up at a crucial moment.
So the 31-year-old Stewart, who signed on as a free agent just as this season started, continues to play the game just as he did as a kid.
He insists he’s never had a close call. There seems to be an attitude of “I’ve made it this far and my career is winding down, so why should I switch now?’’
Because he was in the NHL before the league made visors mandatory six years ago, Stewart is not bound by regulations.
“I think it’s more of just a comfort thing now,’’ said Stewart the other day during an interview at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J. “Wayne has had more close calls with high sticks, pucks to the face. He’s on the penalty kill, so he gets more pucks around the eyes.
“For me, I try not to think about it. I think if I had an incident, I would think twice about it. Right now, it’s all about comfort.’’
Ironically, Simmonds did not wear a visor for most of his first seven-plus seasons with the Flyers. He put one on a year ago but when he wound up with the Devils this season via free agency, he took it off again.
According to an article written by TSN’s Frank Seravalli, initially putting on a visor wasn’t Simmonds’ idea.
Simmonds said he was pressured by former Flyers GM Ron Hextall to do so.
“(When) I didn’t have my visor on, I was doing pretty well,” Simmonds told Seravalli. “Honestly, I don’t think the visor had anything to do with it, but moving to a new team, new surroundings, I’m trying to recreate myself, I guess.”
In a sense, Stewart is following a similar path and no one on the Flyers has told him to follow the rule.
“If it was up to me in today’s game the way it is, I would have everybody wear a shield,’’ Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said. “It’s an individual decision. That’s his call.
“He started in an era, especially with his role – the guy that did the occasional fight and didn’t wear a shield. He continues to do that. I would prefer that he wear a visor for safety issues because of how quick it is, but that’s up to him.’’
The 19 players who aren’t wearing eye protection this season (as of Oct. 24):
Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars; Jordie Benn, Vancouver Canucks; Brian Boyle, Florida Panthers; Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins; Deryk Engelland, Vegas Golden Knights; Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks; Michael Haley, New York Rangers; Zack Kassion, Edmonton Oilers; Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames; Matt Martin, New York Islanders; Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues; Roman Polack, Dallas Stars; Dalton Prout, San Jose Sharks; Ryan Reaves, Vegas Golden Knights; Andrew Shaw, Chicago Blackhawks; Zack Smith, Chicago Blackhawks; Wayne Simmonds, New Jersey Devils; Chris Stewart, FLYERS; Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks.
Someone on this list is going to be the last man standing, just as former Flyer forward Craig MacTavish was the last player to compete without a helmet back in 1994.
Will it be Stewart?
“I grew up where if you were going to fight, you didn’t wear one out of respect for the other guy,’’ Stewart said. “He might cut his hand on the visor.
“It definitely affects your vision. The line at the bottom, you find yourself looking down. Sometimes it’s hard to find the puck.’’
Stewart played in England last season and did have to wear a visor, so it’s not like he’s never done it.
“It really got foggy,’’ he said with a grin, and added: “I’m glad I don’t have to wear it now.’’
Maybe so. But players like Stewart are part of a dying breed of skating dinosaurs who will soon disappear from the game.
Someday there will be one left. And then none.
Just ask MacTavish.