Legal Look: Mandatory visors in the NHL

Eric Macramalla
3/6/2013 3:09:50 PM
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With 14:15 left in the third period of Tuesday's game, Flyers defenceman Kimmo Timonen took a slapshot that was deflected by teammate Jakub Voracek, and struck Ranger defenceman Marc Staal in the right side of the face. Staal collapsed to the ice writhing in pain with blood streaming down his face.

This has once again sparked a discussion as to whether the NHL should make visors mandatory.

So from a legal standpoint, can the NHL force its players to wear visors?

Short Answer:


Slightly Longer Answer:

Making visors mandatory is something that is collectively bargained with the players. So that means it's something the NHL and the NHLPA need to agree on.

Collective Bargaining Agreement & The Competition Committee

Article 22 of the old CBA sets out the rules governing the competition committee. The role of the committee is to examine and make recommendations associated "with issues affecting the game and the way the game is played" (Article 22.1). This assumes that the new CBA won't be much different on this point.

According to the CBA, the committee can look at things such as playing rules, schedule issues and starting times of game. On top of that, it can also make recommendations on "player equipment regulations and standards":

… The issues to be considered by the Competition Committee will include: (1) the development, change, and enforcement of Playing Rules; (2) Player equipment regulations and standards; (3) Player dressing room and in-arena facility standards; (4) the scheduling of games played outside a team's home arena and facility standards relating to said games (e.g., "outdoor" games, neutral site games, etc.)...

Article 22.6 of the CBA provides that recommendations made by the committee go to the Board of Governors for approval. If they approve it, then the new rule goes into effect. However, before a recommendation can be made by the committee, it needs to be approved by two-thirds of the committee. The committee is comprised of five active NHL players and five Club officials.

Recommendations made by the Competition Committee that have the support of a two-thirds majority of all voting Competition Committee members will be submitted for consideration by the NHL Board of Governors. Recommendations will become effective only if approved by the NHL Board of Governors in accordance with the NHL Constitution and By-Laws.

Essentially, if the players aren't on board, the recommendation never gets to the Board of Governors.

It's for this reason that a mandatory visor policy needs to be collectively bargained - agreed on by both the Union and the NHL. Without the Union agreeing to it, it's unlikely to happen.

Are Insurance Companies the Answer?

What about the insurance companies? In theory, insurance companies could take the position that they won't insure players who don't wear visors since the risk is too great. That could generate a lot of pressure on the NHL, and in turn help it get the NHLPA's cooperation.

Could this happen though? For it to be a possibility, the frequency of eye injuries would have to be high enough such that the position of the insurance companies would be warranted.

While eye injuries can be devastating, only a small segment of the NHL population has suffered them. Over the past two seasons, we've seen players like Tom Poti, Ian Laperriere, Vincent Lecavalier, Chris Pronger Tim Brent, Manny Malhotra and Carlo Colaiacovo go down with eye injuries.

Would the current frequency of these types of injuries justify insurance companies not insuring players? No. They could raise rates - but pulling out entirely won't happen.

Composite Hockey Sticks

The use of composite sticks has put players in more danger. These sticks effectively function like catapults giving players less time to react and get out of the way. It seems like all NHL players now have a good shot compared to days gone by when wooden hockey sticks meant only a smaller group of players had great shots. Some retired NHL players joke that they have better shots now than when they played 20 years ago. And some mean it.

The Purpose of a Union

So this is whether the Union comes in. The NHLPA is mandated to represent the best interests of the players. Donald Fehr has made it clear from day one that the players instruct the Union and not the other way around. That being said, the Union also sets out to protect its members, and part of that is steering them in the right direction.

NHL Deputy Commissioner reiterated Wednesday morning that the league wants to see mandatory visors: "The league continues to support a rule that would make visors mandatory in NHL games. As you know, it has been the consistent position of the Players' Association that they are opposed to mandating visor use, that it should be a matter of 'player choice,' and that increased visor use by players should be achieved through continued education and sensitization to the dangers associated with non-use. I believe that continues to be the Players' Association's position, although I cannot speak for them."

Vancouver Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault agreed when he said "visors should be mandatory."

While the adoption of a mandatory visor rule makes sense, as per the CBA, unless the players agree to visors, it won't happen. It was collectively bargained that way, and unless the sides see eye to eye on the matter, visors will not become mandatory.

Eric Macramalla is TSN's Legal Analyst and can be heard on TSN Radio 1050. You can follow him on Twitter @EricOnSportslaw.

John Tavares (Photo: Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)


(Photo: Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
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