Tom Mihalek, Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA — When Chris Pronger returns to the NHL, he'll have more than his captain's "C'' as a uniform accessory.
He'll also wear a protective shield.
Pronger suffered the scariest injury of his 18-year career this week when a wayward stick jabbed him just outside his right eye during a 4-2 win over Toronto. The blow was enough to send the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman into a panic. He screamed and sprinted off the ice in seconds, likely fearing the worst for his eyesight.
He survived the incident with his sight and career intact. Pronger could be back in two to three weeks, agitating the opposition, trading barbs with the media, and standing tall again as one of the top defenseman in the NHL.
Instead of bed rest, though, he should have been in Philadelphia's lineup this week. But Pronger is one of many veterans — who play a valiant game in a valiant league — who have refused to wear a protective plastic visor.
Some cite discomfort.
For most players, like sidelined Flyers forward Ian Laperriere, they simply haven't abandoned their outdated attitudes that wearing a shield means a player isn't tough. Facemasks aren't hip — and only the real macho players are willing to take the ice without them.
Some players once felt the same way about helmets and other protective gear. Now, keeping heads safe is mandatory. Eyes could be next.
The time could be near when visors are as much a part of the game as sticks and gloves.
"Sometimes you have to save the players from themselves," said Pierre McGuire, an NHL analyst for NBC and Versus.
While it's often a puck that causes damage, Pronger was the victim of a freak stick accident. Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski slapped at the puck, but his stick connected with Pronger's and the blade shot straight up into the defenseman's face. In the blink of an eye, Pronger nearly lost one.
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren was blunt: Doctors would not clear Pronger to return unless he wore a visor.
"Some of these guys have been around a long time, and if they don't want to wear it, they won't want to wear it for whatever reason," Holmgren said.
All it takes is that one vicious high stick, one puck blasted at 100 mph right at the eyes to change a player's view.
Flyers forward Scott Hartnell added a visor in his second season after a shot to the face. Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis played his four seasons without one until he realized its value in blocking shots. Retired NHL star Ron Francis had no use for a visor until he took a slapshot to the eye.
Francis, now the Carolina Hurricanes director of hockey operations, might have played on without one had it not been for doctor's orders.
"I got hit in the (left) eye with a slapshot and spent seven days in the hospital with both my eyes patched shut," Francis said. "I remember the doctor's exact words when he took the patches off my eyes. He said, 'God must have been on my side because normally they don't turn out this well.'"
Scare tactics work. So why not common sense?
"You see guys that get a stick poked in the face as kind of a warning sign and put one on after that," said Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone, who does not use a shield. "But I don't know. You can't really worry about it. It just comes with the territory."
Like Pronger, Toronto's Dion Phaneuf is a team captain and a physical defenseman. He understands that inherent danger has long been a part of the game. With pucks and sticks and bulky bodies flying in front of the net, Phaneuf has always played with a shield.
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