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Bruins’ Injuries Stir Up NHL’s Facemask Debate

December 15, 2018
Boston Bruins center Sean Kuraly gets taken to the ice by Ottawa Senators defenseman Ben Harpur (67) during a Dec. 9 game in Ottawa. AP PHOTO Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

By Marisa Ingemi

Boston Herald

PITTSBURGH -- Most people would probably prefer to keep their teeth attached and their faces unaltered -- even hockey players -- which raises the question: Why do hockey players continue to deal with facial injuries when there’s a way to prevent pucks, sticks and skates from causing harm?

The solution would be a full facemask.

On Friday in Pittsburgh, Sean Kuraly donned the mask to prevent further harm to a broken nose he suffered in a fight in Ottawa. While in that case it’s tough to avoid an injury from a fist to the nose, there are other cases -- like in the instance of David Backes being sliced by a skate, or Ryan Donato being hit at practice on Thursday -- in which a facemask would appear to be a solution.

Why that hasn’t come to be in the NHL can be attributed to the way the game is played at the pro level.

“It’s a different style game (from college),” Donato said. “Guys are more open to not headhunting as much. If everyone was wearing bubbles, everyone would have elbows flying around and sticks everywhere. I think there’s a certain respect to everyone with just the visor on.”

Many players on the B’s roster. and around the NHL, have experienced wearing a full visor or cage in some capacity. Everyone in the NCAA is required to wear one, and all players grow up with a full shield until at least the bantam level.

The full facemask usually isn’t permitted in the pros unless medically necessary, as in Kuraly’s case. There’s some restriction to seeing the play, but for the most part, when it’s needed there’s an extra level of confidence to go in the corners and make plays without fear of reopening an injury.

“It definitely feels different,” said Kuraly. “It feels a little bit like there’s a shield between you and the game. ... There’s some blind spots around the edges and stuff.”

Kuraly needed surgery to help open at least one of his nasal passages where they “moved some bones around,” so his need to wear the mask to keep playing makes a lot of sense.

He said he has to wear it for the next five to six weeks and has a splint on his nose for two weeks.

“It’s necessary for him medically to play right now, he’s probably been told he has to wear it,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I would think it would restrict your vision a bit if you’re not used to it, because it can fog up. But that’s what he needs to do to play, it was probably his choice of that or a cage.

“They (former college players) probably have some level of comfort with it from previous experience.”

Being able to see the full play without vision restrictions is an argument against the facemask, and the feeling of being invincible causing more injuries would be a detriment. A full mask doesn’t prevent head injuries, either, and any hits that go up high because players aren’t worried about hitting anyone in the face would potentially, as Donato said, create more of a culture of high hits.

“It’s restricting, but it can help you, too,” said Donato. “You feel like no one can hit you in the face. You go into every corner as hard as possible with your face the wrong way, you’re kind of fearless at that point. Maybe with the broken nose it’s not as easy to do those things. He’s excited about that but he’s not happy about having to wear it either.”

For the time being, a few weeks behind the mask can help a player keep playing with confidence. Whether it’s something that becomes more prevalent would rely on the way the game continues to change physically. As fighting in hockey continues to decline -- and that is a whole other argument -- it’s plausible to believe the conversation around the use of full face shields will increase.

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