Old Chicago Stadium, Leafs vs Blackhawks, March 1962. Bobby Hull would score his 44th of the season in this game and Blackhawks defenseman Reg Fleming would get into a fist fight with three fans after the game. But the most surreal event to come out of this game would be when Maple Leafs forward Bob Nevin (No. 11, kneeling in the photo) had his contact lens pop out, putting a halt to the game, leading the players (and linesman) to assist him in the search.
Due to how bizarre this sounds, many believe that the players were actually looking for a tooth in this photo, which is false (I mean, seriously, they would have to stop the game every 5 minutes in the 1960's if they were that concerned with missing teeth). The main reason though that people doubt the missing contact lens explanation is that the concept of people wearing contacts way back then seems pretty foreign.
The answer to the first question is a resounding yes, as people have been wearing contacts since the 1880s. The first contact lenses were made of blown glass and were very large (almost double in size compared to today's soft contacts), very heavy, very expensive and extremely uncomfortable. For all these reasons, few people wore them. With the innovation of Polymethyl methacrylate plastic (better known as Plexiglas) in the 1930s, contacts could be made lighter and therefore more comfortable to wear. However there was still a significant breathability issue, as the cornea (front of the eye) is one of the only parts of the body that doesn't get its daily oxygen requirement from the blood, and instead relies on our tears and the air around us to satisfy its oxygen demand. Plexiglas as a material doesn't breathe very well, and therefore an eye covered in a Plexiglas contact lens tended to suffer from a lack of oxygen (hypoxia) which became incredibly uncomfortable after only a few hours of weartime. Even so, a large (termed scleral) plexiglass contact lens was likley the type of lens that Bob Nevin was wearing prior to it popping out on this fateful night.
The question of how commonplace was it for players to wear contact lenses back in 1962 is a bit more difficult to determine. Judging by the urgency and diligence of the search party in the photo, I would suspect contact lens wearing players were a bit of rarity in the NHL at time. Additionally, comments made by Maple Leafs VP Harold Ballard after the game bemoaning their price ( "...there goes another $100...") would imply they were fairly expensive items ($1800 USD a pair in today's dollars), which would make the wearing of them a bit cost prohibitive (inflation adjusted league minimum NHL salary in 1962 was about $45,000 USD). We can also see Maple Leafs player Al Arbour (No. 3, foreground) aiding in the search, ironically while wearing his glasses, which shows that not all players who needed vision correction were wearing contact lenses. In fact, Al Arbour had tried contact lenses in previous seasons, but couldn't tolerate the discomfort. The same could be said about Maple Leafs defenseman Tim Horton (who also played in this game, not seen in the photo) who tried contact lenses but couldn't tolerate them. Tim Horton suffered from notoriously poor sight in one eye (evidence suggests it was about 20/400), and based on the description of his prescription (very high astigmatism in one eye) and the fact that his daughters each had the same affliction, I would guess he likely suffered from keratoconus in one eye. Keratocnous is when the cornea is warped, leading to blurry/distorted vision analogous to a camera where the front lens is not smoothly curved glass. Even nowadays, scleral contact lenses are the ideal correction for keratoconus, which goes to show how uncomfortable the lenses must have been in 1962 for him to give up on them.
Therefore I would assume Bob Nevin and his contact lenses were a bit of a rarity in 1962.
Interestingly, the NHL has a specific vision related bylaw, specifically bylaw 12.6 that prohibits any persons from playing in the league who have 20/400 vision or worse in one eye. The reasoning for this bylaw is to help prevent individuals with only one good eye from being blinded in the off-chance their good eye gets damaged during a game. The bylaw is called the Trushinski bylaw, named after Frank Trushinski who lost sight in one eye after sustaining an eye injury during a game in 1921, only to lose sight in the other eye in 1923 due to a skull fracture . This bylaw was challenged in the US Federal court system by Greg Needle, who himself lost sight in one eye due to an errant high stick, and claimed the bylaw was in violation of the Sherman Anti-trust Act. The court sided with the NHL, ruling the bylaw was not motivated by anti-competitiveness, and was instead primarily promoting safety. The courts also deemed the NHL to have a legitimate concern of being sued if Needle or any other monocular player was blinded in a league game (Needle v. National Hockey League, 1979). One has to wonder if the case was brought to court a decade later and under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, would there have been a different outcome? I also find it interesting that the definition is strictly based on visual acuity (ie 20/400). This would suggest that anybody who can see something 20 ft away that an average sighted person can see from 400 ft is eligible to play in the league. This is indeed pretty poor vision, but surprisingly there is no mention of field of view, meaning somebody could have extreme tunnel vision (such as the vision loss from severe glaucoma, which leaves the visual field the size of a thumbnail at arms length) and still be able to reach this threshold, since we only use our central vision to identify the letters on the eye chart. I have actual patients who use seeing-eye dogs who would reach this threshold as its written in bylaw 12.6, and therefore qualify for playing in the NHL. Bizarre. What is also more interesting is that no other professional sports league has a bylaw like this. In the 1960s this made sense since hockey players were at a much higher risk of eye injuries than any other sport. However with increased acceptance of helmets with visors and face shields, the incidence of eye injuries in the NHL has decreased substantially, making basketball by far the number one eye injury sport among adults in the US.
Oh, and Bob Nevin never did find that contact lens.
Dr. Burke is an optometrist practicing at Calgary Vision Centre. He thinks that referees and linesman should have their own bylaw 12.6. Opinions above do not constitute medical advice, and readers should consult with their optometrist if they have questions or concerns about their eye health.