Messier builds case for mandatory face masks

 

Mark Messier broke into the National Hockey League in 1979-80, the same season that the league finally made the wearing of helmets mandatory. Now 47, Messier says it is only a matter of time – finally – until the NHL takes the next logical step and makes facial protection compulsory, too.

 
 
 

Mark Messier broke into the National Hockey League in 1979-80, the same season that the league finally made the wearing of helmets mandatory. Now 47, Messier says it is only a matter of time – finally – until the NHL takes the next logical step and makes facial protection compulsory, too.

"I see the exact same thing happening with face masks," he said yesterday before stepping on to the ice at the Air Canada Centre for the Hall of Fame Legends game wearing a new, possibly safer, line of helmets that he is endorsing. "I would recommend any player that grows up playing with a face mask not to take it off when he turns pro."

Never mind leaving the decision to individuals, he adds. Make facial protection, whether full cages or visors, mandatory.

When Messier speaks on such matters, hockey people tend to listen. He played 25 hard-knock years in the NHL, one of the toughest ever, taking part in more games than anyone but Gordie Howe, plenty long enough to bear witness to everything the sport has to offer, good and bad, the latter including countless head injuries.

Messier is the father of three children. His eldest, Lyon, is 21 and playing for the Charlotte Checkers in the East Coast League. Son Douglas, 5, is just getting into hockey and daughter Jacqueline, 3, "keeps telling me she wants to be a hockey player, too."

Messier is also coaching a Rangers peewee team, along with his father, Doug, and has three nephews who are into hockey. "Three of the kids on their teams," he says, "have been out almost a full year with concussions."

Combine his own on-ice experiences with his growing parental concerns and he was an ideal fit when approached by a long-established U.S.-based manufacturer of field lacrosse helmets, Cascade, with an invitation to sit on its board and help fine-tune its entry into the hockey market. Cascade's helmets feature an innovative shock-absorption technology that allows for "lateral displacement" or what Messier calls a "trampoline effect, inertia is spread out."

The company's advertising boasts "concussions have a new enemy" and says the helmets are "the brainchild of a shock scientist." Not yet easily available in Canada, they're selling in the U.S. for about $140.

When it came to choosing a helmet in his own playing days, Messier said he "always called it the passing-the-mirror test. I'm going to try on 10 helmets and see which one looks the best and that's the one I'm going to wear. We've got to get our ego out of it and get married with the idea that it's cool to be protected. Especially with kids."

It is impossible to say whether wearing one of the new designs would have made any difference for Mike Van Ryn of the Maple Leafs, who suffered a concussion as well as a broken nose and broken finger when hit from behind into the end boards by Montreal's Tom Kostopoulos Saturday night.

"If you watch that play in slow motion it doesn't look that (an intent to hit from behind) was so evident," said Messier. "You put that in real time and the decision-making process is minuscule: Is he turning this way? Is he turning into me? Whatever. You'll never eliminate that totally from our game.

"I'm not blaming anybody, I'm not blaming the player last night (Van Ryn), I'm not blaming the players who have been concussed. But you also have to have a responsibility when you're on the ice to protect yourself at all times and not take it for granted – ever."

Have players lost respect for each other? Messier thinks not. Violence is part of the game, although not the friendly sort that he played in yesterday, lineups studded with hall of famers of various vintages.

"We had stick fights with guys with no helmets on," he said. "You ask them if they respected each other – they probably did."

 
 
 
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