Does The NHL Need Better Helmets?

First let me say that I know almost nothing about helmet technology, or protective equipment in general. What I do know is, watching NHL hockey now, while the game itself might be slower do to various factors I’ve covered in my blog on the subject, the players themselves are bigger and faster than ever. And as a result, the helmets need to be bigger and more protective than ever, otherwise an increase in head injuries occurs.

It’s a simple deduction: if increased impact is not met with equally increased protection or better, increased damage will occur. And that’s precisely what we’ve seen. Concussions are rampant in the current NHL.

But that’s not how it should be, not just empathetically, but literally, this should not be happening. For instance, have you ever gotten hit in the head? Maybe as a teenager, you got hit with a clean punch in a fight. Maybe you slipped and hit your head on something. Maybe you sleep on a sleep train mattress. Maybe you’ve been the undeserving target of one of my punch lines (Don’t take it personally, sleep train. It’s just the downside of fame. Don’t advertise so much next time). But when things like that happen, you’re supposed to get a bump, maybe a headache for a day. But not a concussion! I wouldn’t go as far as to say our heads are meant to be hit, as obviously they aren’t in the least, but they should at least be able to handle a little contact. There is a reason they are the second hardest part of the male body; they are the second most important part, and thus in need of protection. (It’s a regular laugh riot up here today).

So then why is it now, every time I see an NHL player get any bit of contact to the head, it’s basically an automatic concussion? Almost always, it seems. I can understand Matt Cooke’s hit on Marc Savard turning into a concussion, it was absolutely vicious. Hits like that will always end in head injuries regardless of the helmet. The problem is now it is every hit, big or small.

Intentional hits to the head like Matt Cooke’s are much more rare, and can be deterred in large part by harsh discipline. But the other kind, the more accidental ones, happen constantly. They can’t be avoided. As long as there are ten big, top athletes playing our game on a small sheet of ice all at once, there will be accidental collisions. They will hit each other in the head whether they want to or not. It’s inevitable. (And I’m not trying to turn this into an argument for bigger ice, because while that might help this very slightly, the NHL’s current small ice surface is not the main culprit in this problem, for once, and bigger ice wouldn’t solve the problem either). The one point of solace in these accidental collisions used to be that because they were accidental, they tended to come with lesser impacts that did not seem to cause concussions with anywhere near the frequency as they do today.

Why more concussions now? Like I said at the top, the players are stronger, for one, and also medical science is now better at detecting concussions.

Regardless of the reasons, now that these lesser collisions are causing more and more concussions, it’s a huge problem.

So what can be done? Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux, one the best player last year and the other arguably the best player this year, are both out injured, and the league will continue having to play shorthanded in the future, without its stars, if the problem is not fixed. And that’s just the game. What about the people themselves, the lives that have been affected permanently by the more severe concussions? (And let’s not forget the actual deaths strongly linked to fighting-related concussions, although that’s a different a topic).

But if accidents can’t be fixed, what can be done?

Well, if the next time you go out driving in your car, you are a given a guarantee that someone will crash into you, what do you do? Don’t drive your car, sure. Except that answer doesn’t work well with hockey as a metaphor, because that would mean you don’t play hockey anymore. I don’t think the NHL much likes that option, and neither do I. So if you have to go driving, then what? Well, you find a better car to drive, the safest one you can find.

The NHL cannot prevent head collisions happening on the ice; in fact, it’s likely the best players, who get the most ice time and are competed against the hardest, often with increased physicality used as a tactic specifically for them, will continue to be the ones getting hit the most in the head. What the NHL can do, I would hope, is lessen the impact those collisions have on the players’ heads.

In short, the NHL needs better helmets, somehow, someway. I don’t care if that necessitates them being a bit bigger, or heavier, or hotter for the players’ heads inside of them, or whatever else. You have to protect the players at all costs, within reason. This league is nothing without its stars. It’s already suffering enough with all the negative changes that have happened in the last few seasons in terms of defensive evolutions clogging up the game; having some of the only players who can actually “skill”-themselves around that problem injured long-term with concussions every season is simply unacceptable.

I believe the NHL realizes this, at least to an extent. With the hiring of new hard-ass head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan this season, the NHL has taken a stab at eliminating head-shots from the game. I like to think, for all the negative impact this has had on the (clean) physical aspect of our game, it has also helped deter intentional head-shots.

However, to take this approach alone is a flawed tactic, because you can’t eliminate accidents. It is time for the NHL to supplement what they’ve tried to accomplish with Brendan Shanahan in terms of disciplining head-shots by also looking at the issue from the other side. When players do get hit in the head, which (the NHL must accept) is inevitable, what can we do to lessen the damage of those hits?

Because these hits to the head are only a big deal because of the damage they cause. I.e, head injuries are a very big problem, thus anything that causes them is a big problem. But what if head-shots no longer caused injuries anymore, because the head was better protected? Then it wouldn’t be an issue at all. Not only would players be safer, the NHL could even go back to being a more regularly physical league without any worries, at least not in terms of brain injuries. The players would actually be safer with the game being played more “dangerous” in style, more on-the-edge, and ultimately, more exciting. Everyone loves a good hit, everyone would even love a good hit to the head if it wasn’t for the damage they cause. (Boston’s TV crew still does). Finding a way to protect players from concussions benefits not just them, but the game, in almost every sense, and on multiple levels.

It’s time for the NHL to smarten up and look at the helmets. Many different players, with many different heads, have been hit in the head with many hits of varying ferocity, by many different players, all many different sizes…yet it seems like all of them end up with the same result, a concussion.

How do so many varying equations end with the same result? Well I’ll tell you something that’s not a variable; the helmets NHL players wear, while made by different manufacturers, all appear about the same size and style, and made by the same material.

Are the helmets wildly inadequate and the main cause of all these concussions? Either the NHL has done a terrible job protecting its players, or I would have to imagine they’re not. But just because something is not terrible does not mean it cannot also be improved upon. And given the amount of concussions occurring in all different circumstances, with one of the only relative constants being the helmets, I think it’s time the NHL paid some more attention to them and started looking at how helmets can be improved. I deter to the experts on helmets to figure out how to do this, but I don’t doubt that it is possible with a bit of initiative on the NHL’s part. Mr. Bettman and Mr. Shanahan: the players, fans, and the game are all depending on you.

Written by Shark Circle

What do you think? How big of an issue is that of head-shots, and what’s the solution? Is there one? Sound off in the comments by typing in the box below and hitting the “reply” button!

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