history hockey helmets

A Look at the History of NHL Hockey Helmets

On January 13th, 1968, Minnesota North Stars rookie center Bill Masterton had just been passed the puck by teammate Wayne Connelly. Two Oakland Seals defensemen suddenly appeared out of nowhere and body checked Masterton. He immediately lost his balance and fell backward, cracking his head against the hard ice. 30 hours later, Masterton passed away due to his head injury. Since that fateful day, there have been at least eight NHL players who have died as a result of their on-ice injuries. Flash forward 50 years, and NHL players are now wearing some of the most technologically advanced helmets that have saved countless lives. We want to share with you the history of the NHL helmets and why they play such an important role in the safety of the players.

Early Days – Little to No Protective Equipment

In the early days of hockey, there were no helmets, facemasks, or any sort of protective equipment, it just wasn’t anyone’s top priority. Not surprisingly, facial lacerations, concussions, and other head injuries were pretty common. It was rare in those days to see an NHL player who wasn’t missing a few front teeth. The first hockey player to regularly wear a helmet was George Owen when he played for the Boston Bruins from 1928-29. Back then, helmets and protective gear weren’t required to play the game. In fact, due to peer and fan pressure, many players felt ridiculed and ashamed to wear a helmet. For those brave souls who valued their safety over being called names behind their back, helmets and other protective gear were often homemade and thrown together in their own garages, there were no standards. They took strips of soft leather and stitched them together to form a very crude skull cap and chin strap to help protect their heads. It offered very little in the way of personal protection, but at least it could potentially come between the player and a 105-mph hockey puck headed straight towards their skull. It was better than nothing.

The 1960s

Despite the repeated injuries, lacerations, concussions, and knocked-out teeth, the majority of hockey players refused to don protective gear for the next 40 years, until an incident in the late 1960’s would change the outlook on safety in hockey. During a Minnesota North Stars game in January of 1968, Bill Masterton, the center for the North Stars, was skating towards an open puck after a pass. Before he could maneuver out of the way, two opposing players body checked him causing him to lose his balance and fall backwards, slamming his unprotected head into the hard ice. Two days later, Masterton passed away from a fatal brain aneurysm caused by the injury sustained during the game. Believe it or not, it took another ten years before the then-President of the NHL, John Ziegler, made protective helmets mandatory for all new incoming players. This meant that all the current NHL players were grandfathered in and still weren’t required to wear a helmet. Eventually all of the players in the game would be required to wear helmets, with the very last NHL player to not wear a helmet during the game being Craig MacTavish, and he retired in 1997.

Modern-Day NHL Helmets

As technology has progressed, so has the technology that goes into hockey helmets, and sporting helmets of all kinds. As concussions and lingering head injuries become a growing problem for players during their careers, and even after they retire, helmets are an ever important part of the game. All NHL helmets consist of the same general style: a hard-outer shell made out of rugged plastic and other composite materials that encases several layers of protective foam padding that are designed to cushion the head in the event of an impact. They also feature strategically placed vents for cooling and adjustable chin straps that allow for a precise and snug fit. All high school and collegiate hockey players must wear a helmet that’s encompassed by a full metal cage and/or visor. The NHL does not require professional players to wear the cage, but many choose to do so when recovering from facial injuries sustained during the game.

Styles of Hockey Helmets

The mentality of current NHL players has changed drastically from the rough-and-tumble early days of the 1930s. Nowadays, players opt for the best protective gear on the market, and thanks to advances in technology, players are more protected than they ever were. There are several styles and types of helmets that players will wear: Visors – A visor is made out of a clear, impact-proof plastic that allows the player uninterrupted visibility. It’s attached to the upper part of the helmet and designed to prevent errant hockey sticks and pucks from damaging the eyes. One downside to the visor is that the jaw and teeth are left completely exposed. Wire Cage – A wire cage is made out of very strong aluminum, steel, or titanium and is the most popular form of protection for NHL players. While it offers the most protection out of all the safety gear available, it can decrease visibility as the wires are directly in the field of view of the player. Some players will paint their cages white so that a black puck shows up more easily. Full Face Mask – A full face mask offers the same protection as a wire cage, however, instead of sight-reducing metal wires, it uses a rugged plastic shield that has a large see-through area and vented bottom for the mouth. Skullcap Only – NHL players have the option of wearing a helmet that only covers their head. It’s called a skullcap and offers the least protection out of all of the gear. In addition to uninterrupted visibility, the only other benefit of wearing a skullcap is that it makes the player look tough and intimidating—"pain” is this player’s first, middle, and last name—and he brings it as well as absorbs it. Hockey players are well-known for epic facial hair, and a skullcap also allows them to be seen in their full glory. Goalie Helmets – Perhaps the best-known hockey helmets are the ones that the goalies wear. Jason from the movie Friday the 13th made the hockey goalie mask a thing of both beauty and sheer terror. The early goalie helmets were made out of fiberglass and designed to look intimidating. Players would paint them with stitches, skulls, and even deadly tigers. Modern NHL goalie helmets feature multiple layers of composite materials and padding to help protect the players from injuries. NHL rules allow for goalies to decorate their helmets as they see fit. Gilles Gratton from the New York Rangers took advantage of this in 1977 by wearing a mask that looked like a roaring tiger baring its teeth. Many modern NHL players will have their helmets painted to reflect their team names and logos, such as Ken Wregget from the Pittsburgh Penguins, who painted his mask to look like Danny Devito’s Penguin Character in the “Batman Returns” movie.

NHL Helmet Stickers and Logos

We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief history of the NHL helmet and how it came to be an integral part of the sport. If you’re looking for some custom decals to outfit your hockey helmet, be sure to check out our helmet decals page!
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