The History of Helmets

Face of sportsman in protective helmet over black background

Reasons hockey players gave for not wearing helmets, circa 1930:

  • too hot, the sweat gets in your eyes, which makes you tire more quickly;
  • wear a helmet and your hair will be falling out.

It is true that the helmets on offer in those years weren’t exactly streamlined: they were large and leathery, awkward, cumbersome. George Owen of the Boston Bruins was one of the rare outliers to don a modified football helmet: a former Harvard gridiron star, he wouldn’t go out on the ice without one.

Hindsight makes it all seem so quaint, the reluctance of adults to do what they could safeguard their brains. Knowing what we know now about head trauma, concussions, and the devastation of CTE, early attitudes on protecting the head seem outright irresponsible.

There were those who saw the dangers. Referee Lou Marsh was an early advocate of helmets — he also thought NHL skates were too sharp, and called for the butt-ends of sticks to be capped with rubber. And Montreal Canadiens’ influential managing director Leo Dandurand was making the case for universal headware in 1930. “It is a duty of the league officials to insist that players must wear headgears,” he pronounced.

And the players themselves? All due respect, but what did they know? “Some may be opposed to it — may feel that it slows them up or handicaps them,” Dandurand said. “They can feel that way if they wish. They are a daring, courageous lot, and I admire their spirit. But not to wear helmets strikes me as folly. I have been amazed so far there have been no fatalities.”

Ace Bailey was almost the first to die in an NHL game in December, 1933. The Toronto Maple Leafs were playing Boston when — what’s the correct hockey phrase? — tempers flared. The Bruins’ star defenceman Eddie Shore blindsided Bailey, whose head hit the ice hard. Doctors despaired for his life, and he survived two brain surgeries before they were prepared to declare that he might, in fact, recover. He did, though he’d never play another game of hockey.

Players were chastened, and buckled up — for a while. It didn’t last. A week after Bailey’s fall, the Montreal Canadiens tried out helmets in a game with Detroit. It didn’t go well. They fell off and went (as one report put it) frolicking, all over the ice. The crowd thought this was hilarious. The players were bewildered.

Some in the league stuck with the helmets — Eddie Shore was one — though mostly, when it came to the NHL, not: as sticks continued to swing, and the ice got no softer, hockey continued to go bareheaded.

 

Reasons hockey players gave for not wearing helmets, circa 1965:

  • too hot, make you sweat, and then the sweat freezes, and your head aches;
  • fans have a hard time telling helmeted players apart.

Another dismal turning point came in January of 1969. Bill Masterton was a 29-year-old rookie centre for the Minnesota North Stars when, in a game against the Oakland Seals, he was checked by two defenders, fell, struck his head. A teammate heard him say, “Never again. Never again,” before he lost consciousness. He died the next day.

“It was a shock,” Clarence Campbell said, the NHL’s president. He still didn’t think helmets should be made compulsory: he thought players should chose, or not.

A Toronto psychologist explained why they might continue to resist. “It’s the crowd insistence on not being different, not appearing to be a sissy. If a rule were passed making helmets mandatory, they’d be glad to wear them.”

Canadian amateur hockey made the move, requiring helmets for all players in junior and youth leagues. Back in the NHL, the Boston Bruins filed a formal motion in 1969 asking that the league mandate helmets for all players. The NHL’s rules committee looked at it and: rejected.

Chicago’s Stan Mikita was one player who donned a helmet voluntarily after years of skating without. “Next summer,” he said, “I want to be able to mow the lawn, not push up daisies.”

The debate went on, years of it, with almost no consensus. It was 1979 before the NHL finally decreed that all players entering the league would have to be helmeted.

It was time, players agreed. “In five years,” the head of their association said, “we will be taking this whole helmet issue for granted because virtually everyone will be wearing them. Who knows, the next thing we might be talking about is face masks.”

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