Helmets: The NHL vs. Everyone Else (Part 1)

Part 1: Helmet Rules

Since 1979, NHL players have had to wear helmets.  Frankly, there hasn’t been much progression in their equipment policy since then.  The only thing the NHL has to say about helmets is the vaguely worded rule 9.5:

“All players of both teams shall wear a helmet of design, material and construction approved by the League at all times while participating in a game, either on the playing surface or the players’ or penalty benches.”

Okay, so what exactly is a League-approved helmet?  It’s not specified in the publicly-available NHL rules.  A very scientific process involving googling pictures of NHL players has determined that it’s basically anything CSA/ASTM certified.

Dude, seriously.  Speak English.  What’s CSA/ASTM?

The CSA (Canadian Standards Association) and the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) are organizations that set standards for and do testing of hockey protective gear (among several thousand other things).  The helmet standards these organizations set cover the actual construction of the helmet (ie. it can’t be leather, although that would be an interesting look), shock absorption (sorry, Wayne — the Jofa won’t cut it), penetration (can a puck or stick get through it?), retention systems (straps), field of vision, and the markings required on the helmets (the stickers on the back that prove it’s an approved helmet).

Clearly the NHL specifies that players must wear helmets that are adequately safety tested.  The kicker is that they don’t specify how the helmets must be worn, like just about every other major hockey organization does.  When a helmet flies off, it’s likely because the player wasn’t wearing it correctly.  Properly adjusted helmet straps should keep your lid in place.

Let’s Compare Head and Face Protection Rules…

For the sake of ease, I’m going to compare the NHL, the IIHF, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey.  I won’t go into goalie requirements – that’s a different animal altogether.  I also won’t discuss adult rec leagues, as some may choose to follow Hockey Canada or USA Hockey rules, and some may not.  The collection of garbage equipment that hits the ice every Sunday in my league tells you everything you need to know.

NHL:

  • Helmet: You have to wear an approved helmet while on the ice or on the bench.  No helmet required during warmups.
  • Visor:  Permitted but not mandatory.
  • Cage: Rule 9.6 actually prohibits “…pads or protectors made of metal.” but goes on to specify that “A mask or protector of a design approved by the League may be worn by a player who has sustained a facial injury”, like the visor combo Brad Stuart of the Red Wings has been wearing after suffering a broken jaw earlier this year.
  • Mouth guard: Not required, although many players wear one.  Many players also gross me (and Johan Franzen) out by chewing on them instead of wearing them properly.

IIHF:

  • Helmet: Required in the game and in warmups.  Fit is specified: “A helmet shall be worn so that the lower edge of the helmet is not more than one finger-width above the eyebrows, and there shall only be enough room between the strap and the chin to insert one finger.”
  • Visor/cage: Full face masks or visors are recommended for all players.  Women and players under 18 are required to wear a full face mask.  Players born after 1974 must wear a visor at minimum.
  • Mouth guard: Mandatory for players under age 20.

Hockey Canada:

  • Helmet: Required in the game and in warmups, with strap securely fastened.
  • Visor/cage: Under 18 and women — Full-face protection.  Over 18 — Visor.
  • Mouth guard:  Compulsory if you’re wearing a visor.

USA Hockey:

This warms my heart: “USA Hockey strongly recommends that all players and goalkeepers in all age classifications properly wear an internal mouthpiece, a HECC approved helmet and a HECC approved full facemask for all games and practices.”  FYI, HECC is another standards organization.

  • Helmet: Required in games, warmups and practices, with strap securely fastened.
  • Visor/cage: Full-face protection is required for all players below adult level.
  • Mouth guard: Required for females 19 and under, and in all players through midget level (including high school).

This is a good time to stop and point out that the IIHF, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey require that equipment be worn “…in the manner for which is is designed” (IIHF) or the player can be given a misconduct.

The wrong way to wear a helmet. (photo: Andre Ringuette)

College Hockey (bonus section):

  • The NCAA requires full face masks and mouth guards (and helmets, obviously).
  • The CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) requires a helmet and at minimum a half visor.  Mouthguards are mandatory with visors.

Obviously everyone is stricter than the NHL when it comes to face protection and equipment fit.  To an extent, head and facial protection is self-policed, in the sense that the players decide if they want to wear a visor, a mouth guard, etc.  There is absolutely no question that more protection leads to fewer injuries, and plenty of excellent research to prove it.  The question is why players who grew up in systems that require facial protection and properly-fitted equipment decide to take a step back once they’ve gone pro.  There are complaints of visibility problems, discomfort, etc., but if that’s what you grew up wearing, one would think you’d be used to it.  I’ll spare you the discussion of the visibility problems and discomfort caused by a stick or skate to the eye (see: Berard, Brian).

Next time I’ll get into the medical reasoning behind a properly-fitted, properly-worn helmet, facial protection, and mouth guards.  I’ll also discuss arguments for and against them, both reasonable and stupid.

– Jo

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About Jo Innes
Who am I? I'm a paramedic turned ER doc with truly sub-par rec league hockey skills. And I have absolutely no problem sharing my opinion with you. You're welcome.

6 Responses to Helmets: The NHL vs. Everyone Else (Part 1)

  1. Mark Parisi says:

    But here’s what I don’t understand about the helmet debate. You get a concussion when your brain bounces off your skull, right? This happens because your brain is floating around inside of your skull, which is designed to protect the brain from outward impacts.

    In sports especially, it seems like most concussions occur from sudden impact. Force A (–>) meets Force B (<–, BAM!) inertia bounces your brain off of the inside of your skull.

    What good is a helmet against that? Designing a helmet that is going to absorb the inertial force of sports collisions today would result in people running around with beach balls on their heads. The physics involved are some of the most basic, and watching crash test videos explains it better than I ever could. You think a little one-inch pad is going to absorb the energy of a two fully grown men colliding, and absorb it all in the microsecond of impact in a way that slows the inertia of your brain enough not to cause a concussion? Sorry, but Sir Issac Newton disagrees.

    That’s not to say that helmets aren’t useful. But isn’t the point of a helmet to protect your skull from getting cracked open from the outside? That’s a real risk in hockey (just ask Pascal Leclaire) but as concussion prevention devices, I believe helmets are minimally effective.

    • Jo Innes says:

      Excellent points. But put very simply, the helmet’s job isn’t to prevent a concussion – its job is gross protection from impacts (puck or stick to the head, for example), and dispersion of force – taking the force of the impact between head and ice (or whatever) and spreading it over a greater surface area to theoretically lessen the impact. I won’t get into the physics of it (mostly because as long as physics works I leave it alone – we have that kind of relationship), but that’s the quick and dirty. The brain is going to slosh around inside the skull if you apply enough force to the outside no matter what you wrap it in.

      I’ll try to explain better and go into more detail in part 2…

  2. Pingback: Helmets: The NHL vs. Everyone Else (Part 2) « Puck, that hurts!

  3. john kunz says:

    Where can I purchase the same visor cage brad stuart had when he had a broken jaw.

  4. Pingback: Hockey Blog

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