Yo, Ranger! Ever heard of a cage?

Marc Staal wonders if he still has an eye, on Monday.

Marc Staal wonders if he still has an eye, on Monday.

This picture (right) was attached to a story on blueshirtbanter.com, a New York Rangers fan blog. Thankfully, the article explains that Ranger Marc Staal is expected to eventually make a full recovery after copping a full-blooded puck to the eye two days ago, against the Flyers.

My favourite part of the photo is the ref in the background. Because he’s thinking what I was thinking, watching Staal writhe around in severe pain and then staggering off the bloodied ice. Arms folded, head on an angle, the ref is clearly thinking: ‘What a dick.’

Readers of this blog know what a sensitive, new age hockey player I am, usually full of compassion and love for my fellow skaters. But sorry, Staal, I have only one thing to say to you when you can eventually see out of what’s left of your right eye if and when the elephant-man swelling subsides: go buy a fucking face cage.

Staal was lurking in front of his own goal when a Flyers defender did what defenders do on the blue line and drove a hard shot through traffic. All it took was a deflection and suddenly Staal was copping a piece of hard rubber travelling extremely fast to an completely unprotected face. If this description is not graphic enough for you, click here. Watch the injury in all its animated gif gory. It’s way nasty.

In dev league and summer league, the ferociously competitive forms of hockey in which my on-ice adventures exist, many players wear the plastic visors that barely cover your eyes. Not many don’t wear anything but that’s because Ice Hockey Victoria dictates an age range for when you have to wear a cage, or a visor or nothing at all. I’m not kidding: it is clearly stated, in fine print, that while my 17-year-old and 20-year-old sons must wear face cages, hacks my age are not legally required to wear any facial protection, presumably on the basis that if we haven’t picked up a life partner with our looks by now, it really doesn’t matter if they’re ruined at this point.

That was my reading of it anyway.

I wore a full face plastic visor for a few months but found the constant fogging, no matter what demisting potions I attempted to use, to be incredibly distracting. It was actually when I was sitting on the bench, breathing hard but not moving, that I couldn’t see a thing. I’d jump the boards pretty much blind, lost behind a pea-soup fog on the plastic in front of my face, and require quite a few strides for the breeze to clear things up.

Early on in summer league, I switched back to a full face wire cage and have never regretted it, even if yes, it clearly does impair your overall vision somewhat.

That’s a trade-off I’m prepared to make. As I say to anybody when this subject comes up in locker-room discussion: “I’m far too pretty not to wear a cage.”

Or to put it another way, this is one extreme, nasty, potentially dangerous injury that I can avoid with the right equipment, so why the Hell wouldn’t I?

A hard puck to the helmet can give you concussion. So will bumping your head hard against the ice, or into the boards. … basically, if your brain bounces hard enough against your skull, a concussion will happen. There’s no real way to protect that.

"Is he dead?" That's what Drew Miller appears to be wondering after Red Wing Patrick Eaves'  face met a puck. Eaves was out for a year. Would a face cage have helped?

“Is he dead?” That’s what Drew Miller appears to be wondering after Red Wing Patrick Eaves’ ear met a puck. Eaves was out for a year. Would a face cage have helped?

But a face cage can stop a puck or, in my experience, a more frequent errant high stick to the face.

Two weeks ago, we finished a game at Oakleigh and were preparing to leave when a guy staggered off the ice, from a team training scrimmage, with blood pouring from his mouth and a big tooth, one of his bottom fangs, in his hand. “What do I do?” he asked us.

I resisted the urge to say: “Well, five minutes ago, I would have said buy a face cage but it’s too late for that.”

Instead, desperately trying to remember the St John’s first aid part of my scuba diving Stress & Rescue training, I suggested he put the tooth back in his mouth and suck it like a lolly. Saliva is actually the best warm, sterile holding material there is. Happily other even more medically qualified people were there and so he was hauled off to the Monash Medical Centre for treatment. I doubt they would have been able to put the tooth back in.

A cage would have stopped that injury ever happening and the case list goes on and on and on, at every level of hockey.

I do recognise that some head injuries are going to happen, no matter what, in a game where bodies, sticks and pucks hurtle around a confined space. The Red Wings’ Patrick Eaves is only just back on the ice after more than a year of “concussion type symptoms” as they call it, having worn a puck to the ear in front of goal. This one was really nasty but actually I’m not sure a cage would have helped him. The puck struck him near the ear as he turned away from it, so I suspect the brain-rattle was unavoidable.

All a cage can do is protect your eyes, nose, teeth and cheekbones. But that’s no small thing. It’s strange that no hockey player would think of heading into a game without elbow and knee protection, yet many skate into battle with unprotected faces.

I firmly believe that most amateur players only wear visors or nothing at all because they watch the NHL and see their heroes manning up in no visor, or a minimal visor. Visors look way cooler, no doubt. Right up until you get hit. I accept that the vision is worse in a cage but I’d counter that all the knee-to-ankle padding impedes your natural skating ability. Yet nobody ventures into a game without leg padding. Imagine the looks we’d give somebody, being helped off the ice with a broken leg, if they said: “I chose not to wear knee padding because it affects my crossovers.”

In two and a bit years of chasing pucks around, I can easily think of seven or eight times where my face cage has been rattled hard ether by a flying or deflected puck, or somebody’s stick waving around, way off the ice, or even an elbow, and I’ve actively thought: “Amen for the cage.”

Now I just need to work out how to protect my inner thigh, having copped a hard drive to that unprotected flesh against the Fighters on Sunday. Between that and my boringly endless troubled left knee, my skating is not at a career peak right now. On Sunday, we Interceptors play our last game of the summer league season, and I think my legs need the rest. Well, actually not rest: I’m getting too much rest, not able to run or ride my bike hard or do any of the usual things that put off-ice miles into my legs. They’re getting sluggish because of this undiagnosed knee. Time to get it sorted, but I wanted to survive the end of the season.

At last, next week, I’ll be able to see the doctors, as they do an MRI. Which puts me ahead of Marc Staal. He’s listed today as out of action indefinitely.