Known for its speed and rugged physicality, hockey can be an extremely dangerous sport due to the razor-sharp skates, swinging sticks and rock-hard pucks, not to mention the slick playing surface. Players must wear extensive equipment to protect themselves from the game’s various rigors. Incredibly, the hockey helmet, which should be the most obvious piece of safety equipment, wasn’t always part of the standard uniform.
While the first hockey player to don a protective helmet remains open to debate, Boston’s Eddie Shore became the first high-profile National Hockey League star to wear a helmet. In December 1933, Shore, a punishing defender for the Bruins, viciously checked Toronto’s Ace Bailey, sending Bailey’s unprotected head crashing to the ice. Bailey suffered a fractured skull and nearly died. He recovered, but Bailey never played hockey again. Shaken by the incident, Shore wore a helmet for the remainder of his career. However, in those days, helmets consisted of little more than strips of leather stitched together in a crude skull cap and chin strap.
Despite the Bailey incident, NHL players remained reluctant to wear helmets until tragedy struck once more in January 1968. Bill Masterton, a center for the Minnesota North Stars, fell and hit his head on the ice in a game versus the Oakland Seals, causing a fatal brain aneurysm. Masterton became the first and only player in NHL history to die due to an on-ice incident. Incredibly, it still took the league until 1979 to make helmets mandatory, and even then it only affected players entering the league; veterans had the choice of whether or not to wear one. The last NHLer to play without a helmet was Craig MacTavish, who retired in 1997.
Numerous manufacturers, including CCM, Bauer and Reebok, have entered the hockey helmet marketplace. Most modern hockey helmets feature the same general construction, with a hard outer shell made from plastic and other composite materials encasing a series of foam padding designed to cushion the head. Hockey helmets also feature vents for cooling and adjustable chin straps for a precise fit.
Young hockey players and all high school and collegiate players in the United States must wear helmets with full cages that protect the entire face. Canadian junior players aren’t required to wear cages, although many opt for clear visors that extend down from the helmet to protect their eyes from errant sticks and pucks. While free to wear cages or visors, many NHL players still shun the extra protection, with cages only seen when players are recovering from a facial injury.