Last week, TSN's That's Hockey produced a feature on helmet technology and the role it plays in the head shot equation. The following is an expanded, more in-depth version for TSN.ca.
Now that the NHL has taken the first steps toward addressing the head shot issue with new rules late in the 2009-10 season, it might consider taking a closer look at helmet technology as part of the equation.
The issue could well heat up on the amateur landscape as well, as a new study from the University of Calgary raises concerns that body checking in minor hockey leads to more concussions and other injuries.
Following several high profile incidents in the NHL this year, with several players suffering serious concussions, more and more pros seem to believe improved head protection is part of the solution. But it is far from unanimous. Even sources in the medical community believe helmets are only part of the answer.
"When you look at what's happening with head shots, you want to have more protection, to limit your chances of getting hurt," says Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman Luke Schenn.
"The helmets of today are a lot better shaped, cover more of the head and they're deeper," adds Calgary Flames defenceman Cory Sarich. "They're much better than they were, say even five years ago."
"There are a lot of claims that helmet-X does a better job than helmet-Y, but so far, in my view, no proof," says Dr. Charles Tator, neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital and co-founder of ThinkFirst Canada, a national injury prevention charity.
"The big gains are going to be made by a culture change, which says no hits to the head."
Part of the challenge at the NHL is legacy; more players may accept that better helmet technology is likely to help protect them, but many just want a helmet that is light and fitting so they don't have to think about it.
"The helmet I like, it's not too big and bulky," says Flames forward Eric Nystrom. "That's the most important thing. There are some guys wearing some helmets that don't look so good on them."
Indeed, the "mirror test" – how good a helmet looks on a pro player's head – is often as much a determining factor as protection.
"Unfortunately, the popularity of helmets has more to do with how they feel, how light they are, sometimes how they look," says Leaf defenceman Garnet Exelby. "It really depends on the player, but for me personally, I would always use the one with the best protection."
Some of the most popular helmets among NHLers comprise a basic plastic shell and thin white vinyl nitrate padding –far from the best protection, and have been around for years.
"At the pro level, we see a lot of what we would call an entry level price point helmet," says Wes Huether, director of training and operations support at Pro Hockey Life, a major Canadian hockey specialty retailer. "A lot is driven by fashion – the mirror test. The lighter weight, smaller, thinner liner helmets, super comfortable, real nice fit, but certainly not front notch when it comes to protection."
Some critics argue that manufacturers have not done enough to introduce new helmet technology in recent years. But in reality, all of the major suppliers have made it a priority. Innovations include the use of expanded polypropylene padding, a higher energy impact-absorbing material to replace thin vinyl liners, combined with comfort foams and improved shell designs.
"Helmet technology has certainly come a long way in the last three to five years," says Huether. "Manufacturers are focusing on what's going on inside the helmet, trying different types of liners and padding, different technologies."
Easton Hockey recently introduced its latest model, the S19 Z-Shock, a one-piece EPP-based helmet with a polycarbonate micro-shell that is super lightweight, provides the snug fit and nice look that pro players want, but with far better protection than traditional models, the company says.
"There's really nothing else like it anywhere in the world," says Ned Goldsmith, senior vice-president of Easton Hockey.
In the NHL Final, the S19 is worn by Ville Leino and Arron Asham of the Philadelphia Flyers, and Ben Eager of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Another major NHL supplier, Reebok-CCM, which outfits star players such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, also makes head protection a priority.
"Now we test instead of just to a standard, we do the tests over a variety of different speeds and impact velocities," says Ryan Crelinsten, product manager, Reebok-CCM. The company, like most helmet makers, is also becoming more involved in longer-term testing in cooperation with medical facilities to better understand what exactly happens when a player absorbs a hit to the head.
Mark Messier is even trying to help the cause by collaborating with Cascade Sports on The Messier Project for a new helmet called M11. This model features something called Seven Technology, which is yet another new liner system that is designed to address the concussion issue.
"It's designed specifically to address concussions in hockey today – a mix of foams, to help prevent concussions," says Huether.
Bauer, another major supplier to the NHL, also recently released its own top of the line head protection, the 9900, "the most advanced helmet we have ever created, to bring the next level of comfort and protection to today's hockey player," according to category business director Craig Desjardins.
Thankfully, despite the challenges to get NHLers to wear the latest head protection, the retail environment is very accepting of the new technology.
"There's no question that kids are driven by what the pros are using," says Huether. "But thankfully in our case, mom and dad have certainly wisened up to what's going on with their child's head. Most of the focus is on protection."
- With files from TSN staff
Wayne Karl is a freelance journalist in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.