The merits of the lower half face mask
It was a match tied at three between Calgary and Vancouver last season when a remarkable slow-motion camera captured James Neal, then with Calgary, having his front teeth knocked out by a high stick as he entered the offensive zone. It was a scene that made most repel in disgust, even dentists and tooth fairies, as the official picked up individual teeth, specifically the right and left lateral and central incisors; Neal, on the bench briefly displayed a gummy smile resembling that of a small child before their adult teeth grew in.
In a seven year study conducted by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “528 injuries were recorded in games resulting in an injury rate of 14.2 per 1000 player-games (52.1/1000 player-game hours). Of those injuries, 210 cases (39.8%) involved the head and face, the highest of all anatomic regions.Hockey players are gladiators, but even Russell Crowe wore a full face mask. In a sport where, “returning to the ice to score a goal after losing a tooth is part of hockey lore”, there may never be enough of an argument to mandate that professional players wear full masks or cages. But perhaps there is another way to curb head & facial injuries: by removing the eye visor and replacing it with the lower half face mask.
Facial injuries are by far the most prevalent hockey injury with almost half of all “incidents” requiring time away from the ice for repair. But while, “several articles have dealt with ocular injury, while other articles have dealt with the general subject of hockey injury with only scant attention paid to the facial area”. The majority of facial injuries, ocular or elsewhere, occur by way of a stick, which comes from down-to-up and catches the victim in the mouth or eye. But if a lower half face mask were worn, the stick could essentially bounce off the shield and divert away from the victim’s face. In fact, it can be the upper face mask that causes a stick to catch a victim in the eye as sticks are known to get caught between the player’s face and the shield, causing the player who owns the stick to panic in an attempt to free himself. Now there is the argument that if James Neal had worn a mouth guard perhaps the events would not have played out so poorly for #18, but on January 2nd, 2010 when Keith Tkachuk moved into the crease for a tip attempt from a point shot, the resulting goal tipped by way of Tkachuk’s mouth. The mouth guard didn’t stand a chance.
In the mid 2000s when the subject of mandatory half masks were first being discussed, fog and clear visibility were strong arguments against. With a lower half face mask those arguments cease to be problems as the eyes would be completely unburdened. If we use some data from field hockey, which similarly involves sticks that have a habit of hitting the victims in their jaws and mouths, “54% had sustained injuries necessitating a visit to a physician and/or a dentist. Of these victims 20% sustained serious dental damage at least once.” Ask Sidney Crosby if he would have wanted a lower-half face mask when he was hit on an errand tip during a 2013 match against New York.
Now, unfortunately there is not enough data to suggest whether the majority of facial and ocular injuries occur via a stick swung in a down-to-up motion as suggested earlier, (whether retrieving a puck, lifting a stick, or trying to get around a player by raising one's stick above their head) as that data is quite specific. But a correlation between head & face (including eye) injuries with the most likely culprit of a hockey injury suggests the two are more connected than not.
To summarize, while the data may not support this argument to its full degree yet, there is some information to recommend that a lower half face mask may be more of an injury suppressant than its upper half cousin. We often try to answer a problem with its logical solution; eye injuries require eye masks, it makes perfect sense. But perhaps if we could study how the injury took place, (in what direction did the stick move, did a puck deflect upward or was it shot straight), we could introduce a more effective method of reducing ice hockey injuries.
The Globe and Mail (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/hockey/a-sport-with-teeth/article1214948/)
British Journal of Sports Medicine (https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/21/4/174)
British Journal of Sports Medicine (https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/49/1/30)