Photo by Debora RobinsonBy mid-December, Mighty Ducks center Steve Rucchin had missed more than 10 games and a month of the season. He complained of dizziness and problems with his vision. Team doctors were baffled, as were his teammates and coach.
"Roosh is still not great," said Craig Hartsburg, until recently the Ducks' head coach. "They're still trying to figure out why he's having problems."
A good guess would be that over time, Rucchin's immune system has somehow lost the ability to deal with being hit in the face with a frozen hunk of vulcanized rubber—harder than a baseball—traveling at more than 90 mph.
That's what happened to him on Nov. 15 in a game against Colorado, and he has been lost to the failing Ducks —who are suffering through one of their worst seasons—virtually ever since. Cost to the team in Rucchin's $2 million annual salary:about $120,000. Impact on his team's peformance:priceless.
In a sport in which injuries are not only accepted but also gleefully played through, this one didn't have to happen. If Rucchin had been wearing a full facial shield—the kind junior and collegiate players are required to wear—it's practically certain that the slap shot off teammate Teemu Selanne's stick that injured him would have instead smashed off the hard plexiglass of the shield. Rucchin might have gotten his bell rung, but not cracked.
But full shields are as unwelcome in the NHL as Michael Eisner's suggestion for a two-point shot. If you think the numerous replays of Rucchin's injury would somehow change that, you don't know hockey. Last season, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan Berard was struck in the face with a stick and nearly lost his eye. Emergency surgery managed to re-attach his retina—but not his career. At the age of 23, Berard is almost certainly finished as a player. Yet when the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) took a poll of its members at the end of last season, asking if players should be required to wear even half shields called visors, more than 90 percent said no.
"The overwhelming feeling," said Tim Wharnsby of the NHLPA, "is that that's a decision that should be left up to the individual players." Players such as the Atlanta Thrashers' Adam Burt, who earlier this season took a puck in the face and sustained enough damage to require 20 screws in his jaw. Burt has since returned to the ice . . . and is playing without a shield. In fact, there are exactly zero NHL players wearing full shields, and only 20 percent wear the skimpier visors.
"You know, I'm kind of surprised," said sportscaster Stu Nahan, an NHLgoalie from 1947 to 1954. "I think today's players are a lot smarter. In my day, most guys didn't go to college; some didn't even go to high school. They played hockey because they were trying to find a way to get out of the zinc mines, and you'd do anything, even give up your body. Today, these kids go to college, but I think they're still a part of that legacy, if you will. They still see any kind of protective gear as sissified."
If that's true, someone should tell the NHL's best offensive player, Jaromir Jagr; its toughest (pound-for-pound), Theo Fleury; and its most respected, Ray Bourque—all of whom wear visors.
Players who don't wear them say their concerns are practical. "One of the things I've heard is that players would lose peripheral vision," Wharnsby said. "They wouldn't be able to see off to the side, and that would leave them vulnerable to the kind of hit Eric Lindros took last season."
Wharnsby is referring to a vicious hit the Philadelphia Flyers' Lindros took in last season's playoffs, one that many thought had ended his career. It's understandable that no one would want to be put in that position because of a visor . . . except that Lindros was not wearing a visor.
Others say that the shield invites reprisals from opponents who either have no respect for someone who wears one or who believe it's a signal of vulnerability.
Rene Chapdelaine, who played with the Los Angeles Kings and is now a player and coach with the minor-league Long Beach Ice Dogs, once had to wear a full visor after breaking his nose.
"I never got hit so much in the head in my life," he said. "Sticks to the head, elbows to the head. I played 40 games before that and didn't take as many hits to the head as I did in that one game."
Just two weeks ago, Chapdelaine's teammate Kelly Askew took a puck under his left eye and wore a visor in the next game to protect himself.
"It was like wearing a big bull's eye," Askew said. "I took so many hard hits to the head. It was brutal. When the game was ending, [the other team] told me I better wear a full shield the next time. When you wear one, you lose the respect of other players."
The absence of full masks in the NHL is "an honor kind of thing,"says Askew's boss, John Van Boxmeer, vice president of hockey operations for the Ice Dogs and an 11-year NHL veteran. "They'll say that they can't get used to them. Well, they've been wearing them their whole career, so I don't see what they have to get used to. Anyway, you can get used to anything. The real reason is that being able to take off that shield is like a badge that says you're a pro now. I remember when I first came up, it was optional to wear a helmet. Well, no one wore a helmet, so I took mine off that day. It was like saying I'd arrived."
Face gear arrived in hockey in 1929, when Boston Bruins goalie Clint Benedict wore a leather nosepiece to protect his broken schnoz. It didn't catch on. "The second his nose healed, he took it off," said Phil Pritchard, curator of Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame. "There wasn't any face gear after that until 1959."
It was 1959 when Montreal goalie Jacques Plante wore a mask. Plante's standing was exceptional—he's considered the game's greatest goalie—yet the small fiberglass mask that covered the area from his forehead to below his cheeks didn't catch on either. Not right away. In fact, it wasn't until 1974, when Ray Brown of the Pittsburgh Penguins put on a mask, that every NHL goalie was finally wearing some kind of facial equipment.
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"People take masks for granted, but that was only 26 years ago," Pritchard said. "Old habits die hard in hockey."
Rucchin was expected to be back on the Mighty Ducks roster this week. Will he be wearing a half shield?
"He will now," said a team spokesman.
Which means that if the events of Nov. 15 somehow repeat themselves and Rucchin takes a puck to the face, his half shield won't make a damn bit of difference, and the doctors will be left scratching their heads once again.