Injuries drive equipment changes for Colorado Avalanche
Every big injury around the NHL is scrutinized by those involved in the sport. From the top brass to the Owners, General Managers, Player Agents, and players – even all the way down to the fans – injuries like those to Erik Karlsson and Marc Staal are sure to generate conversation. The question from everyone’s lips: how do you prevent this from happening again?
When it comes to the players, often it is up to them to decide whether or not they want to take additional measures to protect themselves from the harm that can come from playing a game at breakneck speeds involving sticks, hard rubber discs, and razor sharp blades as a means of transportation. Concussions are always at the forefront of discussions involving player safety, but this year the debate for mandatory visors and cut-proof socks has raged on like never before.
Even now, as the shortened season begins to pick up speed for a final push before playoffs, the NHL Players Association is beginning to discuss the validity of requiring visors in an effort to protect the future of the sport.
Before any rules will ever be implemented, the individual players themselves make decisions determining how safe they will be when taking the ice for a game on any given night. For Colorado Avalanche forward Aaron Palushaj, first hand experience has lead to him taking precautions into his own hands.
Palushaj suffered a serious injury during training camp with the St. Louis Blues in 2009, forcing him to consider additional measures to stay healthy.
“In my second pre-season game, second period I believe it was, [Marty] Turco was out of the net and I was kind of chasing him. He toe dragged me and he’s got pretty good hands for a goalie. So I lost an edge on my skate,” said Palushaj. “I went into the boards and my right skate went right on top of my left skate and just sliced right down to the bone and actually chipped the bone a little bit. Since then, I’ve always worn the cut-proof socks but it was pretty scary.
“It was centimeters from hitting a major tendon. I could have maybe missed a full year. Ended up missing a couple weeks but it still sucked. Your first training camp, you don’t want to have something flukey like that happen.”
The injury knocked Palushaj out of the lineup and into the minors and may have even hindered his path back into the NHL. Since then, the use of cut-proof socks, often made with kevlar to prevent injuries, has been part of his routine. It’s also something he thinks will catch on around the league.
“Some guys don’t do it but I think it’s all part of a personal preference. I think, in the coming years, more and more people are going to wear them just because they realize how important it is to protect you,” said Palushaj. “You see that injury to Erik Karlsson. If he has those socks on, maybe it’s just a bruise or maybe it’s a slight cut. It’s not a really major injury and he’s back in a couple days.
“I think the more that happens – hopefully it doesn’t – that will force more people to definitely wear the socks.”
The injury to Karlsson, a rear guard with the Ottawa Senators, was the impetus for many on the Avalanche to look into preventative gear.
“After that injury to Karlsson in Ottawa I just thought I want to try them out. We had them readily available here and I wanted to just see what they felt like and they felt like any normal sock,” said Avalanche defender Erik Johnson. “The protection factor behind it is probably the biggest thing of why you want to wear them. There’s really not any reason not to. They can protect you against a very gruesome injury and they’re comfortable too.”
“It’s such an easy adjustment to make to your gear and it can prevent such a significant injury. Why wouldn’t you?”
For guys like Duchene and Johnson, the fear of such an ugly injury was motivation enough. With the speed of the game these days, any measure taken to protect yourself and keep yourself in the game is worth consideration.
“It’s that old saying, ‘anything that can go wrong will,’ and you want to prevent any liability you have. Whether it’s that or any other type of weird injury you could have,” said Duchene. “You want to put yourself in the safest position possible.”
“It could happen to anyone. It’s just kind of a freak accident. It’s kind of surprising that it doesn’t maybe happen more,” said Johnson. “Guys are falling all over the ice and guys’ feet are flying in the air. You could really get nicked pretty much anywhere.”
For most of these guys, adjusting to new socks was relatively easy. Even Ryan Wilson was giving it a try as he looked to return early from an ankle injury. Though, for Wilson, it wasn’t something that he could just slip on for his first game back.
“They’re just a little thicker and I’m just so used to very thin socks,” said Wilson. “Your feet almost feel bigger in your skates but it is something everyone probably should be wearing. Any way you can avoid injury is what you want to do.”
Johnson’s complaint is less about thickness and more about keeping them on. Similar to a scrunched sock in a ski boot, discomfort arises when the gear won’t stay in place. Keeping the cloth taught and in position is Johnson’s key to comfort.
“They’re a little thicker. The thing I found the most annoying about them is they bunch up a little bit,” said Johnson. “They kind of slide down your feet so you really have to pull them up high and make sure they’re tight. I tape the tops so they don’t slide. In a best case scenario, you take your skates off between periods and readjust them but some guys don’t like to take their skates off after periods so I just tape them on.”
To the young guys on the team, the time it takes to settle into a new pair of socks far outweighs the potential cost of not putting them on.
“If you can prevent an injury like that with just a small adjustment as a sock, you’d do it right?” said Duchene.
This new technology is something that hasn’t completely spread through the Colorado Avalanche dressing room though. Veteran defenseman Jan Hejda is one that hasn’t bought in to the idea of cut-proof socks, though he has his own reasons.
“‘Cause I’m an old school guy. I always wear just the regular socks,” said Hejda. “I like to use all the same equipment like I always use. I don’t like any new stuff.”
When probed, Hejda conceded that it’s as much to do with comfort as it is superstition.
“It’s probably a little bit of both. I never use different skates, always Reebok. I hate to wear new gloves,” said Hejda. “Sometimes I’m asking trainers ‘I’m going to need new, used gloves. Do you have some light used gloves?’ because I hate new stuff. It’s part of old school.”
Despite this admission, Hejda is a believer in the value of wearing a visor. Considered one of the most valuable assets of a hockey player, guys like Duchene and Johnson follow Hejda’s lead in easily protecting their future.
“My view on the visor has always been the same. You can fix everything except for your eyes,” said Duchene. “Your eyes are the most fragile part of your body and they’re the most important part I would say. You got to protect them.
“I’ll never take a visor off. I’ll always wear it.”
“It’s the only thing I’ve really ever known since I came into the league,” said Johnson. “It’s like sitting in your car looking behind a clean windshield.”
Despite the obvious benefits of wearing a plastic shield to protects a player’s eyes, the debate about visors runs deeper. There is currently a rule in place – Rule 46.6 Face Protection – that penalizes players with shields from starting a fight, which is seemingly counterproductive in a sport where fighting is still an everyday component. This forces players to weigh the benefits of their health versus allowing a competitive advantage to an opponent.
The result? Many guys opt out of face protection altogether.
“It’s like why 50% of guys don’t want to wear visors, because this rule is still in,” said Hejda. “I don’t think it’s right.”
Hejda and the Colorado Avalanche saw the implications of this penalty first hand when Ryan O’Byrne received an additional two minutes after a fight with Brad Stuart in San Jose earlier this season. O’Byrne leapt to the defense of Avalanche Captain Gabriel Landeskog, who was steamrolled by Stuart entering the offensive zone. San Jose was given a power play, which they made the most of, while O’Byrne was serving his unsportsmanlike conduct infraction.
“His fight was just because somebody hit – I can say maybe it was a dirty hit – our Captain. It’s like the biggest star on our team,” said Hejda. “He step up for him and this is how hockey always was. I think it was a good fight, a good decision by O’Byrne, but this visor rule just make it worse.”
The thought that two gladiators duking it out on the ice should have to remove their head gear in order to prevent additional time served is even more appalling, but that’s the way the rules are written now. This type of thinking almost encourages a lack of safety, which is something that all major sports have been criticized for.
“I know a lot of the guys that do drop the mitts like to have no visor because that forces them to keep their helmet on,” said Palushaj. “They don’t really need to take their helmet off and that’s beneficial. You see a guy who hits his head on the ice. You don’t want that to happen.”
As the debate for voluntary vs. mandatory safety measures wears on, there are, obviously, proponents coming at it from all sides. While many have taken on the additional measures with little or no instruction, others allow their decisions to come down to simply a matter of habit.
“Visors are visors. I don’t wear one. I don’t think I will wear one. I’m just so used to not having one,” said Wilson. “I think you’ll see a lot more guys wearing visors but there’s still going to be the select few that don’t.”
Whatever side the players fall on now, the ability to protect themselves lies solely in their own hands. Whether or not this stays the case remains to be seen. Until then, many are content with adding additional equipment if it means prolonging their season or even their career.
What do you think? Should visors be mandatory? What about kevlar socks? Where do you stand?