March 10, 2015

Eye Injuries In Hockey

This is Greg Neeld, the first player to wear a visor. He was a promising junior defenseman with the Toronto Marlboros. His career took a major turn on February 17th, 1974 when he lost his left eye thanks to an errant high stick courtesy of Kitchener's Dave Maloney.

But he tried to play on and was even drafted by both the NHL and the WHA. The WHA let him play (just 17 games with the Toronto Toros in 1975-76) but the NHL would not, despite Neeld's protective helmet featuring a visor then dubbed as "the Neeld Shield."

Neeld even took the NHL to court to try to play. The NHL refused to let a one-eyed player in the league, because if Neeld were to injure his good eye, the insurance costs of having a player to go blind due to injuries would be insane not to mention the bad publicity.

Bylaw 12:6 of the National Hockey League forbids players who are sightless in one eye from playing in the NHL. It states that players with one eye, or 3/60ths of normal vision, shall not be eligible to play for a member club. Loss of 75 percent of sight in an eye is required for insurance to take effect.

The regulation became known as the "Trushinski Bylaw" because of a major leaguer named Frank "Snoozer" Trushinski who played right defense for the Kitchener Greenshirts. According to NHL officials at the time, Trushinski lost sight in one eye due to a high stick in 1921. He came back and lost most of the sight in his other eye after fracturing his skull in another accident. The NHL didn't want that to risk having its players lose their eye sight and they didn't want to pay the high insurance costs, so they created Bylaw 12:6

Mrs. Trushinski once recalled her husband's problems several years after he died:

"A year or so before he lost his eye, his skull was fractured in a game against the Toronto Granites hockey team. He got along seeing, but not too well."

"All his life he had a film on his left eye, so he really had trouble after the puck hit his right eye; that was during a game in 1921 when a puck hit the eye. He never saw out of it again. He was able to work a long time, though, for Schneider's, a meat company in Kitchener, Ontario."

The Trushinski Bylaw became important in March 1939 when Toronto Maple Leafs left winger George Parsons lost his left eye in an injury during an NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens against the Chicago Black Hawks.

"NHL president Frank Calder told me that I couldn't play in the NHL again" said Parsons, who was 25 at the time of forced retirement. "Calder said that the NHL governors wouldn't allow one eyed players in the league because of the Trushinski precedent. Calder said the NHL didn't want that happening again."

The ruling was challenged in June 1975 when forward Greg Neeld was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL. Neeld had lost sight in one eye while playing amateur hockey in 1973. Neeld felt he could play with his specially designed helmet, featuring the first visor in hockey, nicknamed the Neeld Shield. Neeld's lawyer Roy McMurtry threatened to sue the NHL when Neeld was kept out of the league because of the Trushinski Bylaw.

NHL governors voted 13-3 (with two abstentions) to continue to bar one-eyed players from the league. The league felt that it could not afford to insure Neeld and that his special helmet could cause injury to other players. Neeld ended up playing in the WHA, which did not bar one-eyed players.

As far as I understand it, the Trushinski Bylaw still exists, but it has been successfully challenged. The NHL changed its policy and allowed Bryan Berard to play. The difference here is advances in medical technology. Berard had been fitted with a special contact lens that gave him more sight than Neeld had.

I absolutely cringe every time I see a player suffer a serious eye injury. It is probably the scariest injury in all of hockey. High sticks and flying pucks to face happen all too often in hockey. Name dropping could be an endless task, but here's just a few examples.

Bryan Berard,  Al MacInnis, Anders Hedberg, Kevin Smyth, Pierre Mondou, Hector Marini,  Jeff Libby, Mark Deyell, Jamie Hislop, Glen Sharpley, Steve Yzerman, Mattias Ohlund and Manny Malhotra.

If the NHL had their choice, all players would be required to wear a visor, or at least a grandfathered rule so that all newcomers would have to wear one. Close to 75% of the league wears visors already. All the newcomers from junior, college and European hockey have grown up wearing full or partial facial protection. It should be an easy and obvious decision, but for reasons no one can understand, the NHLPA opposes it. And until they back down from this irresponsible stance, we will always dismiss the NHLPA as an organization that lacks any leadership beyond the financial interests of the players. 

Eye injuries and illnesses are of great concern to me. I have glaucoma, a degenerative disease that unfortunately I've been forced to become an expert on. The idea loss of sight hits kind of close to home for me.

With that in mind, GreatestHockeyLegends.com like to take this time to announce the adoption of Canadian National Institute for the Blind as my official charity of choice. It also happens to be one of Walter Gretzky's top chairties.

This Easter, April 4th specifically, I will be racing in an international 10km race in New Orleans, Louisiana. I will be racing for Team CNIB. I am trying to be the fastest Canadian at the race, as well as raising money for CNIB, and currently am the 4th highest ranking fundraiser in the entire country. But we can do better. 

I'm also doing this because I believe hockey bloggers can make a difference. There's a number of top quality hockey blogs out there that have a significant and loyal following of readers. I'd like to think we as a blogging community can dig a little deeper than hockey and help out in a bigger cause that we believe in.

That's why I'm going to challenge other hockey bloggers to adopt a charity of their choosing. You don't have to put up a big story as to why you have chosen the charity you have, but somewhere on the main page of your blog I'd like to see some form of link or advertisement of a charity that you support.


Derek O'Brien said...

I always figured the rationale behind barring players with impaired vision was it was dangerous--they have a blind side and are more susceptible to being hit and not see it coming.

Interestingly, Hall-of-Fame referee Bill Chadwick's playing career ended because he lost vision in one eye. He said throughout his NHL referee career he never told anyone he couldn't see out of one eye because players would never let him live that down, obviously.

Anonymous said...

I've seen a few of those games and highlights when players had a serious eye injury.I am horrified every time.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Finnish born Pentti Lund who lost his eye in early fifties. After his injury jersey number 13 was banned for a long time. Later in WHA Larry Lund was allowed to use 13.

Anonymous said...

For other recent examples of eye injuries, Saku Koivu and Steve Yzerman come to mind, although both were able to play again after that.

Anonymous said...

Can't forget Mattias Ohlund

Dan said...

I can understand why players would oppose the mandatory visor. Some guys feel they have a slight hindrance with a visor and every little bit helps when you're fighting for your livelihood.

I think that speaks to a greater problem of young professional athletes lacking worldview though.