Helmets: The NHL vs. Everyone Else (Part 2)

Part 1 of the helmet series dealt with rules in various hockey organizations.  Part 2 will deal with the equipment itself – How it works, and why it works best when worn properly.  I’m not just talking about helmets, but about all the equipment currently in use in the NHL that protects the head and face – the helmet, visor, and mouth guard.  Let’s begin with…

The Helmet

What’s its job?

The helmet’s job is to protect the head.  Although that’s obvious, it’s not immediately obvious that there are things the helmet is good at, and things it sucks at.  Helmets are good at preventing direct injuries  – things like pucks, sticks, skate blades or the ice causing an injury to the surface of the head.  Helmets are not good at preventing indirect injuries, i.e. concussions.  The reason is the science behind how a concussion happens.

A quick trip into concussions…

A concussion refers to a brain injury causing a change in brain function.  Concussions vary in severity from very mild (feeling momentarily dazed) to severe (career ending – intractable vomiting, vision changes, permanent changes in balance, etc).  Concussions can result from a direct blow to the head, or a sudden head movement due to forces acting elsewhere (like a bodycheck on a player who doesn’t see it coming).

The brain essentially “floats” (snugly) inside the skull in cerebrospinal fluid (aka CSF, the stuff that surrounds your brain and spinal cord).  When the skull suddenly changes direction/stops/starts, the brain has to do the same.  In normal day-to-day life there’s no problem – the brain rides happily around in your skull changing direction as you do.  When there’s a sudden force applied that’s strong enough to move the head, the brain is inclined to stay where it is – remember Newton’s laws of motion? An object in motion tends to stay in motion until an external force is applied to it.

Translation: The brain wants to keep going in its original direction until something stops it.

During a hit, that inclination to keep going puts traction on the so-called “anchor point” of the brain – the midbrain – home to a lot of very important stuff, including the nucleus of the oculomotor nerve (the op center of the nerve that controls most of your eye movements).  This is where the term “rotational force” that you’ve been hearing tossed around with relation to concussions comes in.  Basically the brain is rotating on a somewhat fixed point, and when that happens you get an interruption in normal function.  The brain isn’t fond of stretching, moving, rotating, or really doing much of anything but happily riding in your skull.  Honestly, the brain is a bit of a jerk that doesn’t like to be touched, has its feelings hurt easily, and doesn’t like to be consistent about recovery.

The brain hates rotating.

It should be fairly clear now why helmets aren’t great at protecting against concussions.  They aren’t completely useless – they spread the impact across a larger area and the foam liner absorbs some of the energy, but the fact is if you hit your head hard enough your brain will move in a way that isn’t good for it.

So what’s the solution?

First, wear the helmet properly.  As we learned in part 1 of this series, the IIHF, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey require that equipment be worn “…in the manner for which it is designed”.  In fact, the IIHF goes so far as to specify how the helmet should fit: “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.” Failure to wear equipment properly results in a misconduct.

Toews, seriously?

A helmet will do a player absolutely no good against any injury if it doesn’t stay on his head.  Shane Prince of the Ottawa 67s found that out the hard way March 11th after a hit from the Niagara Ice Dogs’ Tim Billingsley resulted in his helmet flying off and the back of his head hitting the ice.

Prince got off relatively easily with a mild concussion, and is expected to return to the ice for the OHL playoffs this weekend.

Second, wear a better helmet.  Until the mid/late 90s there were still a few players in the NHL wearing the practically useless Jofa 235 (Gretzky, I’m looking at you), a helmet that was about as protective as a toque with a chinstrap.  NHL rules now vaguely state players must wear an “approved” helmet, but unlike the rest of the world, don’t specify who has to do the approval.  Regardless, sanity prevails and NHL players are keeping the fine people at Reebok, Easton and Bauer in business.

The Messier Project, which is Mark Messier in association with Cascade Sports, have come out with the M11 helmet, which they state has been proven to distribute impact forces better than traditional helmets.  In addition, they’ve shown that the M11 helmets protect better in successive impacts than traditional helmets.  The helmet also has what they call the Pro-Fit System, a ratchet at the back of the helmet that snugs it under the occiput (that big bump on the back of your head) for a more accurate fit.  What truly sets the M11 apart is the so-called Seven Technology.

Seven Technology

Instead of being padded only with foam, the helmet has several plastic units each made up of seven small interconnected plastic tubes.  These units deform under force – they flatten out and then rebound to their original form.  This absorbs and displaces the energy of the impact, meaning it’s that much less the brain has to take care of.  The Messier Project offers a great animation of how the technology works that does a far better job of explaining it than I can.

I would totally wear this.

Early iterations of this helmet were poorly reviewed because it was considered bulky, unattractive, and was poorly vented, but the M11 in its current form reviews well.  The Messier Project is currently gathering data from teams using their helmet.  They claim to have nine NHL players currently wearing their helmet, interestingly mostly Anaheim Ducks.

Third, rule changes and/or better enforcement.  Ideally the best way to avoid a concussion is to avoid getting hit in the head, or getting hit elsewhere in a way that results in sudden acceleration/deceleration of the head.  Since this is NHL hockey and I’m not stupid, I know that’s not going to happen.  Don’t get me wrong – I love hockey and I’d hate to see it diluted down to something unrecognizable.  I don’t, however, love head injuries, and I get particularly bent out of shape at avoidable head injuries.  So from a medical point of view I think it’s fair to say that wearing good equipment properly is a positive step towards at the very least reducing concussion incidence (and hopefully severity).


– Jo