A Brief History of the Hockey Helmet
The use of helmets has been one of the most interesting topics of debate surrounding the sport of hockey throughout its history. In the early days, no one wore them at all. After a few scary incidents, though, more and more players incorporated them into their repertoire. In early 1968, NHL forward Bill Masterton died after suffering a brain injury in a game between the Minnesota North Stars and Oakland Seals. This prompted more and more use of the hockey helmet through the 1970’s, including the entire USSR team during the 1972 Summit Series.
By 1979, the NHL announced they decided to make wearing a hockey helmet mandatory for all players as “an additional safety factor”. This rule came in with a grandfather clause, allowing players already in the league to continue not wearing a helmet. All new players, though, did not have an option. By the end of the 1996-97 season, everyone in the league wore one; forward Craig MacTavish retired that year, going down as the last player to play without a hockey helmet.
Fast forward to today, and we seem to be approaching yet another critical moment in the sport regarding helmets specifically. Visors became mandatory in 2006, with the same grandfather clause the helmet requirement had a few decades earlier. Already the league is down to just a few handfuls of guys still going visorless. Prior to 2017-18, only 34 of the 640 listed players in the league lacked a visor on their hockey helmet.
Adjusting to the Modern Game: USA Hockey Should Take Visors Away Entirely
So, what is the next step? There’s no doubt that head injuries are a major concern across all sports, both professionally and recreationally. CTE has become quite the epidemic, especially in football, but there plenty of tragic cases exist in the hockey world as well. Besides this, plenty of cuts, broken bones, and lost teeth occur regularly in the NHL, as players’ faces are left exposed. The hockey helmet may help protect the skull and brain, but with no facial coverage, their eyes, nose, and mouth are always at risk.
The visor requirement helped to cut down on facial injuries to the eyes, and some people believe it reduced how often we see fighting. Players prefer fighting without visors on, and when the NHL stopped allowing players to remove their helmets before a fight, the fights occurred less frequently. Landing a good punch could mean cutting your hand on an opponent’s visor.
But, there’s still a problem. And it is one that begins before players reach professional hockey.
NCAA Hockey – A World of Cages
Interestingly enough, the world of college hockey looks drastically different than the professionals. To hockey fans, this is a known fact. To other sports fans, it probably seems bizarre. After all, NCAA football and basketball is where most professional players play before cracking the NFL or NBA. Therefore, the game is almost identical.
With hockey, though, NCAA just looks different. And it’s because everyone wears full facial protection. There are no visors, no uncovered faces. Every single skater wears either a full cage or a full shield, protecting their entire face from forehead to chin. They don’t have any other option.
Youth hockey mimics this rule as well, forcing all 18U teams and younger to wear a hockey helmet with full facial coverage. This goes for all USA Hockey leagues, including juniors.
NHL Career Path, Illustrated with Helmets
So, imagine you’re an up-and-coming player fighting to make the NHL. Throughout youth hockey, you grew up wearing a cage. Every opponent you’ve ever faced has worn a cage too. You work hard enough to crack the USHL, the top junior hockey league in USA Hockey, at 16 years old. For the first time in your life, some of your opponents don’t have a full cage or shield covering their face. The players allowed to wear visors are all 18 or older, and when you turn 18 you receive that same option.
Next, you land a scholarship and play Division I NCAA hockey. Suddenly, you’re right back to wearing a full cage. After three years of visors, you’re once again wearing a cage, and all your opponents are too. After college, you receive NHL offers and sign a contract. Now you’re again swapping back to a visor.
So, why the back and forth?
If College is Visorless, Everything Before College Should be Too
Rather than introducing visors to players when they’re still playing with and against minors, cages should be mandatory across USA Hockey. Why? Because a significant portion of junior players won’t be going on to play professional hockey. Adjusting to a game of visors is pointless for athletes whose careers end in college or earlier. The smaller number of players who eventually wind up in the pros, too, have really no reason to go back and forth.
Furthermore, there’s an increased risk of injury when mixing visors and cages. The players opting for full facial protection, including those younger than 18 who don’t have the option, don’t have the same level of concern for facial injuries as a player wearing a cage does. Players for a long time have said that wearing a cage gives a sense of security, and the guys wearing them have a bit more of a “warrior” mentality. That is, they lack the fear of taking a puck or stick to the face. They have a similar lack of concern when using their own stick, too, and may be more likely to catch someone else in or around the face with a shot or high sticking infraction.
This isn’t to be victim blaming though, either. Sure, players should have enough wherewithal to keep from injuring one another. Inevitably, though, high sticks and high shots are going to happen. It makes sense that a player without a reason to fear their face getting hit would be more likely to play that way, though. It’s that same reason that a goalie is less afraid of a slapshot than a forward is. Their gear is designed for that.
Not Major Juniors, Though
Again, this argument is only stating that USA Hockey should make cages or full shields mandatory for all their players. I’m not saying the Major Junior leagues should do the same. Major Juniors, or the CHL, is comprised of three highly competitive junior leagues across Canada. That includes the WHL, QMJHL, and OHL. A large percentage of these players become drafted and play professional hockey, whether at the NHL level or below it, many even going to Europe for their careers.
The reason they are an exception is due to the fact that playing Major Junior surrenders a players’ NCAA eligibility. The reason for this is that Major Junior allows players with NHL contracts, and who have been paid NHL signing bonuses to play in the league. This classifies the league as professional under the rules of the NCAA and thus cannot play college sports under NCAA. So, they would never be in a scenario where they went from wearing a cage in youth to the visor in juniors and back to cages in college, and lastly to a visor again professionally. They miss the college step, so would not be putting a cage back on. Plus, since they’re technically professionals as determined by the NCAA. The argument is they’ve already “qualified” to wear a visor as a pro.
If the NHL eventually does away with visors, Major Juniors can make the transition then, too. There’s not as much of a reason for them to make that change sooner.
Future of Hockey Likely Going this Way, Anyways…
Besides the sensible case made above, there’s another argument towards instating cages as a mandatory policy across USA Hockey. That is, hockey will probably eventually require full face protection at professional levels anyways. It only makes sense that youth hockey, junior hockey, and college hockey would be first in line for that trend. Professionals will follow suit eventually, especially as the game gets faster, athletes get stronger, and shots get harder.
Technology already pushed shots to be stronger than ever with advances in carbon fiber for making sticks. All other equipment continues to become more and more protective, too. Other sports see similar rule changes to protect players from head injuries, and facial protection seems to be an easy, obvious next step. It may be a decent amount of years off, but USA Hockey would be smart to make the change sooner than later. It would reduce facial injuries to young players, which seems like a no-brainer. Especially considering how many of those guys don’t play hockey professionally, it just doesn’t make sense to allow them a lesser degree of protection when they may never play at a level where visors are the norm for everyone.
If visors aren’t allowed for some at any given level of play, they really shouldn’t be allowed for any. Mixing visors with cages doesn’t make logical sense, especially when the crowd in question is 16 to 20 year olds. They aren’t professionals, they’re not all adults. Most of them will be putting a cage back on in college anyways. They should be wearing more protection than a visor.
Main Photo: AMHERST, MA – NOVEMBER 9: Cale Makar #16 of the Massachusetts Minutemen skates against the Providence College Friars during NCAA hockey at the Mullins Center on November 9, 2017 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Massachusetts won 5-2. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)