A short, heads-up history of the Hockey helmet

Longtime Red Wing Red Kelly won four Stanley Cups with Detroit. He later won four more with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He started wearing a helmet when he was traded to Toronto in 1960.

Hats off to technology. Without gains in helmet design over the last few decades, National Hockey League players would be subject to the same tragedy that befell Minnesota’s Bill Masterton, who during a game on January 13, 1968 struck his head on the ice and never regained consciousness. His death remains the only on-ice fatality in NHL history.

Like almost all pro players than, Masterton wasn’t wearing a helmet. Not only were the existing versions of headgear uncomfortable and ill-fitting, but helmeted players also had to endure a chorus of derisive remarks from their bareheaded brethren. “Some of them who have put it on have been called ‘chicken,’” Red Wings left winger Frank Mahovlich admitted at the time.

Although many players in the early days of the sport wore tukes or baseball caps, it was merely an attempt to keep warm, not protected. The first helmets appeared in the late 1920s and remained basically unchanged through the 1950s. The leather football-style headgear typically was worn by players recovering from concussions or other serious head injuries, though in the case of Johnny Crawford, vanity was the motivator. Throughout the 1940s, the Boston defenseman wore a helmet to hide his bald spot.

There were occasional attempts to make headgear mandatory during the NHL’s first half-century, but the movements always fizzled. One season in the late 1930s, for example, Detroit general manager and coach Jack Adams made helmets mandatory for all Wings.

The experiment was short-lived. One by one, the players abandoned them, saying they were too confining or uncomfortable. They followed the example set by team leader Ebbie Goodfellow, who ripped his helmet off before a fight and flung it toward the bench—where it hit Adams in the face.

Perhaps the most influential spokesman for helmets was Red Kelly, the longtime Wings defenseman, who donned headgear shortly after being traded to Toronto in 1960. Kelly’s stature as a player and member of of the Canadian Parliament helped influence public opinion. “Kelly plays it safe,” proclaimed a safety brochure distributed in Canadian schools. By 1964, some 200,000 players in the Toronto Hockey League were wearing the mandated helmets.

That still wasn’t good enough for Kelly. “They wear it in the bantam, midget, and peewee leagues but not in the juniors,” he complained. “If more players wore it in the NHL, you’d see the same thing happening in junior and other leagues.”

Molded plastic helmets, imported from Europe, were first worn by NHLers like Bert Olmsted and Red Berenson in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, General Electric produced the “Patterson Helmet.” It was made of a synthetic material called Lexan and featured a suspension system that cradled the head and kept it away from contact with the outer shell. As part of a public relations campaign to promote hockey safety, GE made the helmets widely available at cost.

During the 1970s, improvements in ventilation, comfort, and visibility made headgear more palatable to pro players. Other refinements included custom fitting and improved protection for the temples, the back of the neck, and other sensitive areas of the head.

On June 1, 1979, the NHL enacted a rule requiring the wearing of helmets for anyone entering the league after that date, though a “grandfather” clause allowed diehard veterans to continue to go hatless if they wished. Ongoing advances in foam technology, hards plastics, and structural configuration made helmets much lighter and stronger. And the clear plexiglass visor, introduced in the 1980s as a new form of facial protection, quickly developed to the point that glare, distortion, and fogging were virtually eliminated. Today, nearly two-thirds of all NHL players wear a visor.

Several players preferred to go without head protection well into the early 1990s, including defensemen Harold Snepts, Mike O’Connell, and Brad Marsh, each of whom spent part of his career in Detroit. Marsh, whose short-cropped, granite-like mug bobbed up and down the ice at Joe Louis Arena between 1990 and 1992, once explained how Hockey Night in Canada influenced him to emulate his heroes: “When I was very young, I watched hockey on Saturday night. I saw those players, I recognized them on the ice and on my hockey cards.”

The last player to go helmetless was St. Louis Blues center Craig MacTavish during the 1996-97 season. By then, many hockey observers were lamenting that something of the game’s unique character had been lost in the move to protect players’ noggins. Gone were those end-to-end rushes by Guy LaFleur and Ron Duguay, their long locks trailing in the slipstream as they sped down the ice. So in 1991 the league tacitly acknowledged the marketability of having recognizable heroes by allowing players to go helmetless if they wished. Significantly, even the most ego-fueled players didn’t take advantage of the new rule—which demonstrated, perhaps, that their heads were in the right place.

Inside a helmet.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.