As I’ve been out with another concussion (non-hockey related), I’ve thought about the so called concussion epidemic that has plagued the NHL and the sport of hockey for a long while now. I’ve started to think that despite the equipment us hockey players wear on the ice, there is very little there that would actually protect a players’ brain from a concussion.
Where the helmet has been designed to protect the head from potential injury if hit by another player, stick, puck, board or the ice itself, there is (at least in my opinion) very little in the way that a helmet would actually protect a player from concussion.
I’m not a doctor, but my understanding of concussion is that the fluid that surrounds the brain is unable to protect the brain from severe impacts or forces associated with rapid acceleration/deceleration where the head would jolt violently causing the fluid not being able to protect the brain from these motions.
Helmet shells are commonly made from vinyl nitrale which do form a strong and durable shell to protect the head from impacts. The sole purpose of the shell is to disperse the energy of a point of impact, similar to a car in an accident where the body of the car has been designed to absorb the forces of impact in an accident to protect a passenger. The insides of the helmet are either made of the same material (the white stuff that majority of the pros wear) or polypropylene foam, which is supposed to absorb forces of impact to reduce the chance of a concussion.
A quick history lesson before we move on. As far as hockey goes, helmets are a relatively new piece of equipment. It was only in 1979 the NHL made helmets mandatory. Though at the time of making helmets mandatory 70% of NHL players were already wearing them. Sure helmets had been around before then, but it was the first time that players were required to wear a helmet full time. I had to do a Google search for hockey helmets to find that George Owen of the Boston Bruins was the first player to wear a helmet in 1928-29 season.
It wasn’t until the death of Bill Masterton in 1968 that the discussion of helmets became prominent and lot of the stigmas about wearing helmets started to dispel. A similar stigma now surrounds the use of visors. Majority of players do wear a visor, but there is still a debate ongoing whether the use of visors should be made mandatory to avoid career threatening eye injuries.
As for helmets and concussions, there has only been one company (Cascade Hockey) that has made concussion protection its USP. With it’s M11 helmet Cascade tried to create a helmet that would significantly reduce the risk of concussion. The M11 was designed to significantly reduce the forces from high speed linear impacts which Cascade determined caused most of the concussions in hockey. Additionally Cascade developed a system to adjust the setting of the back of the helmet to give it a more customised fit feel and ensure tight, but comfortable fit. A lot of the times when watching hockey you see the helmet move on the players’ head from hits on the boards or player getting up after a hit and re-adjusting the helmet, which means that the helmet is does not sit right and therefore is not providing adequate protection.
Going back to the fitting and adjusting feature, I’ve not seen a similar system on any other helmet. The Reebok 8K helmet, however had something similar to it, with its FitLite technology. This has obviously evolved in the 11K helmet. Though I don’t want to take a snipe at the technology or design, Sidney Crosby the face of Reebok was out for 10 months with a concussion and is now sidelined again with a neck injury and concussion. People can make their own judgements of that.
I think aside from Cascade, only one other manufacturer has made a play on the reducing the risk of concussion and that is Bauer, with its RE-AKT helmet. The helmet has been specifically designed to manage rotational impacts, as is the M11 from Cascade. The collateral from Bauer says that the helmet helps to protect the brain from excessive intra-cranial movement due to the helmet’s liner, which Bauer has named VERTEX FOAM. I have asked Bauer how the helmet actually protects from concussion or how the liner in the helmet reduces the risk of concussion, but I have not received an answer yet.
But the real interesting thing is, at least in Europe, whenever you buy a helmet you’ll have a CE safety certificate on it to say that the helmet has passed required tests, but might not protect you from serious injury. As far as I’m concerned there simply isn’t, or hasn’t been enough done by manufacturers to address the concussion problem, but then again, how do you stop the brain moving around inside your skull? How do you stop a violent jolt of the neck/head from causing concussion?
When the issue of head shots raised its ugly head in the NHL, there was a lot of discussion among GMs on how you can take it out of the game and as a result a new rule was introduced (Rule 48). The NHL also set up a task force to better manage concussions and players who suffer a suspected concussion, hence the quiet room players are lead to mid game if there is a suspect concussion. If the NHL set up a task force to look into the issue and how to better manage the issue, why wasn’t helmet safety and safety features a part of this discussion?
To me it only seems obvious as one of the things that always crops up in concussion and hockey conversations is that “the players are bigger and faster and the padding has gotten better and bigger so players feel more protected”. Yes true. I do feel safer and protected when it comes to shoulder pads, shorts, elbow pads etc, but looking at the helmets over the last few years, I feel that the development has not been as rapid as with other pieces of equipment hockey players wear.
The other issue that comes with helmets is that the common advice is that a helmet should be replaced after heavy impact to the shell as it might lose its protective features. Again the Cascade M11 helmet is the only helmet that I know of that can sustain more than one impact.
Which leads us to the issue of price. Where the pros will have access to free equipment in most instances, guys who have to pay for their own kit might not be able to afford the top of the range helmet that provides the safety features that have been promoted by Reebok, Cascade and Bauer with their top of the range helmets.
A quick look on Hockey Monkey shows that CCM’s V10 helmet is the cheapest top of the range helmet around and retails at sub $100 at Hockey Monkey. I use the V10 helmet and since my last on ice concussion, I’ve been looking at the helmet and thinking how on earth does this protect my brain from concussions. Sure it protects my head/skull from impact from puck, stick, boards etc, but there is very little in the helmet to re-assure me that this will also protect my brain from concussion.
Also let’s not forget that Marc Savard wore the CCM V10 helmet when Matt Cooke deliberately hit him in the head in 2010. In fact, the V10 helmet has changed very little since then.
I haven’t been able to find the prices for Bauer’s RE-AKT helmet, but the M11 retails at $129.99 (reg: $159.99), the RBK 11k at $169.99 (reg: $179.99), The Easton E700 at $149.99 (reg: 179.99) or the Easton S19 Pro stock helmet which regular retail price tops the $200 mark. Please note that those are the prices as per Hockey Monkey and can vary from retailer to retailer.
Then there is of course the mirror test. I remember that the V10 helmet especially at the time of its launch was promoting itself with the tag line of “Guaranteed to pass any mirror test”. The mirror test should not be the first thing on your mind when buying a helmet. The fit and protection should be the top priority when choosing a helmet. You only get one head and unfortunately the brain is a delicate thing that can’t take too many beatings or injuries.
But like I said in my interview with Aaron Murphy, the contact and physicality of hockey is something that draws people to the sport and was a reason why I started to follow it in the first place. If you take the hitting out, we are left with something that resembles the All-Star game and no-one in their right mind would want to watch that type of hockey for 82 games (plus play-offs) a year. I guess concussions are something that you can never fully take out from a contact sport, but you can always make sure that players are protected to the highest standards and that there are medical checks to ensure that players with concussions are given the best possible treatment.
What I would like to see is equipment manufacturers include some of their ‘concussion prevention technologies’ into all their helmets. Remember all it takes is a funny fall in a game of shinny to cause a concussion. It’s not just professional, semi-pro or amateur players who are at risk from concussions, it is hockey players from all levels.
Think of it this way and using my car analogy from earlier. A car that does not meet the safety regulations in collision and impact testing by EURONCAP is not allowed on the road. As your brain is a passenger in your head, wouldn’t you want it protected to the highest standard when you play any contact sport?