It’s that time of year again, when 16 elite NHL teams will play the hardest they have all season in hopes of bringing Lord Stanley back to their hometown. However, the fight for the cup hasn’t always been the same. In the early days of hockey, there wasn’t much regulating checks, fights, and safety equipment for players. But as the years passed and more injuries accrued, a shift in player safety became a concern, especially regarding helmets.
It is up for debate on who the first NHL player was to wear a helmet. Rumor has it that it was Boston Bruins defenseman, George Owen. It was the same leather helmet he wore playing football while attending Harvard University.
Another noted Bruins defenseman, Eddie Shore, adopted the use of a helmet after the famous 1933 Ace Bailey – Eddie Shore incident where Leaf’s player King Clancy tripped Shore, and in retaliation, Shore hit Bailey from behind, flipping him over backwards. After the incident that ended Bailey’s career, hockey player, Art Ross created a new helmet design, however it was to be widely rejected by players.
In the 1930’s, the Toronto Maple Leafs were instructed to add helmets to their hockey equipment. This idea was unpopular with fans, the media, and the players who still continued to play without any head protection. It wasn’t until Bill Masterton’s fatal incident in 1968 that NHL players became more open to the idea of wearing helmets. It took the National Hockey League until 1979 to make helmets mandatory for players entering the league, veteran players still had the option of wearing one or not.
After being traded to Toronto in 1960 defense star, Red Kelly became the biggest advocate for wearing helmets during a game. Kelly was influential on public opinion due to his legacy as a defenseman and being a member of the Canadian Parliament. A safety brochure was distributed in Canadian schools with the tagline “Kelly plays it safe.” By 1964, around 200,000 Toronto Hockey League players were wearing helmets.
With a large focus on the crown of the head, today’s hockey helmets are generally a hard outer shell made from vinyl nitrile, a substance that helps disseminate the force upon impact across the entire helmet. The foam insider liner is made of vinyl nitrile foam, expanded polypropylene foam, or other materials that aid in distribution of impact. Visors and cages are still optional.
Today, high school and collegiate players in the U.S. must wear helmets with full cages. For players who are looking to add even more protection to their gear, 2nd Skull caps are permitted for high school use in hockey.
Photo: Guillaume Gielly