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Nokelainen has a different view

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / February 27, 2009
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Petteri Nokelainen's right eye is much better, almost all better, and doctors tell him he soon should be able to get back to playing for a living, earning his Bruins paycheck.

"When these things happen," he mused yesterday morning at the Garden after his second day back on skates, "you don't think about hockey right away . . . it's everyday life, it's your vision . . . you can't get a new eye."

Nokelainen, 23, was on the ice without a protective visor Feb. 10 when San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle's stick blade smacked into his right eye and temporarily shut down vision in the eye. It took some 48 hours, said Nokelainen, before he could vaguely detect a change in light when doctors pointed a flashlight directly at the injured eye.

But for that first day or two, nothing, only darkness. Doctors kept assuring him he was OK, the eye would get better, make a full recovery, but time would have to work its cure. Meanwhile, he had to change his position from hard-working right winger to low-impact couch potato.

"Yeah, lots of movies," said Nokelainen, his Finnish blue eyes lighting up a little, just a tiny scratch or two apparent around the eye. "And lots and lots of takeout food."

It's a little easier for Nokelainen to laugh these days, but he freely admits he was scared that night. One moment he was battling for a puck around center ice, playing the game he loves. The next moment, he was desperately cupping his hands over his injured, painful eye, his gift of sight instantly sliced in half by the business end of a hockey stick.

"Definitely the scariest thing in my life," he said.

The pupil in Nokelainen's right eye remains fixed, considerably larger than that of the left eye. The doctors, he said, have done that intentionally for the eye to relax a little while it heals. He takes eyedrops. He waits. His vision is all but back to normal, save for some blurriness, which he figures is probably caused in part by those eyedrops. Once he stops taking the medication, and the doctors tell him all is back in proper working order, he'll be cleared to resume contact practices, and then it should be only a few more days before he can tell coach Claude Julien he is ready for duty.

One thing will be different, however. Nokelainen won't suit up again without a visor.

"I'm not going to tell anyone what to do, whether they should wear a shield," he said. "But you have two eyes, and you have to cover them."

Maybe the visor will be the one he wore much of last season, a simple half-shield like so many of today's NHLers wear. Or maybe it will be a slightly longer version, one that will dip toward his upper lip. He'll work out the specifics over the next few days, but he made the overall decision while he was on his back, wondering if he would ever see out of the eye again, finding it hard to believe he abandoned the visor about this time last year to see better on the job.

"I guess you have to be a little bit dumb," he said, thinking through one more time his decision not to wear a visor. "But you don't think you are going to get a stick in the eye."

Earlier this season, a puck went into one of teammate Shane Hnidy's eyes, forcing the veteran defenseman to adopt a visor. Hnidy is still uncertain whether he'll make it a permanent part of his game gear.

Earlier this month, right winger Michael Ryder took an Antoine Vermette stick across the kisser, leaving Ryder with multiple fractures of his frontal sinus. Ryder initially thought the stick went into his left eye, but he was spared, as he says, by just a fraction of an inch. Surgery followed to repair the fractures, and Ryder last night played his second game post-surgery, with a full visor as protection. Like Hnidy, he doesn't know if he'll go to the shield full time.

NHL players have been slow to protect some of their most vital organs, especially their brains and eyes. For decades, they all wore protective cups, long before helmets became mandatory in the 1980s. To this day, league bosses and the players' union waffle over whether to insist that the rank-and-file wear eye protection. Make what you will of player sensibilities and priorities.

Nokelainen doesn't have to wait for word to be handed down from on high. Boyle handed him his mandate, in the form of an errant stick delivered directly to his right eye.

"It's a lot nicer playing without [a visor]," said Nokelainen. "But sometimes you have to suck it up a little bit."

True enough. And be thankful that you can.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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