Helmet holdouts: The last players not to wear helmets in the NHL

Nowadays, it’s unimaginable for a player to take to the ice without a helmet, but for the NHL’s first six-plus decades, playing without headgear was the norm, and even after it was made mandatory, several preferred flow over protection. These are the final 10 men to go without a bucket.
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Simon Bruty /Allsport

Simon Bruty /Allsport

Look around the NHL today, and you will notice that players without visors are few and far between. Such was the case with helmets 30 years ago. Seeing a helmetless player in 1989 was as unusual as seeing a visorless player today.

The NHL made helmets mandatory four decades ago. Any player who entered the league after June 1, 1979 had to wear a helmet, but any player who signed his first pro contract before then could opt out if they signed a waiver. During the 1978-79 season, about 30 percent of NHLers didn’t wear a helmet. Ten years later, though, and you could count on both hands how many helmetless players were left in the league. Here’s a rundown of those players, and why they chose to show their flow.

10. Ron Duguay –1988-89, Los Angeles Kings
Ron Duguay’s decision to not wear a helmet wasn’t just to be stylish. “I had the big hair back then,” he said. “I liked the way I looked without a helmet, but more than anything else it was the comfort. I feel confined when wearing a helmet. It’s annoying to me. I don’t wear hats. I don’t like anything on my head.”

Duguay went without headgear during his 12 years in the NHL, but he wasn’t so lucky when he played with Mannheim in the Germany League during the 1989-90 season. “I tried to sign waivers, I tried to do anything, but they just wouldn’t allow it,” he said. “So, I wore a little Jofa helmet for one season.”

Afterward, Duguay returned to North America and played in various minor leagues – all without a helmet. He may be the 10th-to-last NHLer to not wear a helmet, but he became the last pro player to not wear one when, at 52, he skated two games in 2008-09 in the Eastern Professional League.

9. Al Secord – 1989-90, Chicago Blackhawks
Al Secord was a power forward who battled his entire 12-year NHL career without a helmet. He scored 54 goals in 1982-83 and hit the 40-goal mark two other times. He also amassed 2,093 penalty minutes. “I was surprised that Secord didn’t wear a helmet because he was a fighter,” said Troy Murray, Secord’s teammate in Chicago for six seasons. “Secord was as tough as nails, and for the longest time in his career, he refused to put a helmet on.”

According to hockeyfights.com, Secord dropped the gloves 171 times during his NHL career. He retired at 32 in 1990 but returned to pro hockey a few years later, first with Roller Hockey International’s Chicago Cheetahs in 1994 and then the IHL’s Chicago Wolves from 1994 to 1996. This time, Secord, who was now also employed as a commercial airline pilot, opted to protect his head and wore a helmet.

8. Guy Lafleur – 1990-91, Quebec Nordiques
Guy Lafleur streaking down the right wing with his blonde hair flowing behind was a common sight in the 1970s. But did you know that ‘Le Demon Blond’ wore a helmet during his first three years in the NHL? In his fourth season, he ditched his helmet, then had six consecutive seasons of 50 or more goals and 100 or more points. “I started playing well as I decided to not wear a helmet,” he said in 1983.

Lafleur retired at 33 early in 1984-85 but made a comeback in 1988 with the Rangers. While the number of helmetless players dwindled by the end of the 1980s, Lafleur’s return increased the headcount by one, until he retired for a final time, at 39, in 1991.

7. Harold Snepsts – 1990-91, St. Louis Blues
Being able to see better was reason enough for Harold Snepsts to go without a helmet. “When I played junior, they assigned the same Patterson (brand) helmets to the whole team,” Snepsts said. “It didn’t fit me that much, it was sliding up and down. My parents noticed that I was blinking a lot. When I got to the NHL, I found that when I didn’t wear a helmet, I felt more comfortable and wasn’t blinking as much.”

For 17 seasons, Snepsts patrolled the blueline for the Vancouver, Minnesota, Detroit and St. Louis, sans headgear. He did sport a helmet and visor for a few games with the Canucks after sustaining a facial laceration and again after hitting his head against the boards in a game with the Blues. “That kind of scared me,” he said. “I tried a couple of different helmets, but I couldn’t hear that well, so I decided to take it off.”

Like many of his peers on this list, Snepsts feels that mandatory helmets, followed by the increase of visors, made hockey less safe. “When I first started in the NHL, nobody really carried their sticks up high,” said Snepsts, now 64. “It was a rough league with a lot of fisticuffs. But it was a no-no to carry your stick up. And if you did, you had to answer the call. I noticed in my last few years, when visors started appearing, that the sticks started coming up.”

6. Greg Smyth – 1992-93, Calgary Flames
The NHL repealed the mandatory helmet rule for 1992-93 and 1993-94 but reinstated it afterward. During those two years, anyone who wanted to play without a helmet could do so. Greg Smyth, a defenseman for the Flames, gave it a shot. “I grew up watching the Maple Leafs play without helmets,” Smyth told THN in 2016, “so it was something I just wanted to try.”

There are conflicting accounts of how many games Smyth played without a helmet, but here is how he remembered it: “There wasn’t one particular incident or anything that changed my mind,” Smyth said. “It was a long time ago. I don’t recall any (head) injury. I had a couple of fights. I didn’t get hit in the head or with a high stick or anything. If anything, players might have been a bit more tentative, keeping their sticks down. I played 10 games without a helmet, then put it back on.”

Later that season, Brett Hull played in the 1993 All-Star Game without a helmet. Jeremy Roenick wanted to play in the 1994 All-Star Game without a helmet but was talked out of it by former teammate Doug Wilson. Speaking of whom…

5. Doug Wilson – 1992-93, San Jose Sharks
“Doug Wilson had a full head of big, curly hair,” said Troy Murray, who played with Wilson on the Blackhawks from 1982 to 1991. “He was just a real presence back there on the blueline, without a helmet.”

Playing defense without a helmet could sometimes be dangerous, as Wilson found out in his 16-year NHL career. While playing in Chicago, Wilson sustained a broken jaw, a broken nose, a fractured skull and a concussion. From time to time, he’d wear a helmet and sometimes a facemask when recovering from an injury, and he even spent a full season in a helmet. But most of Wilson’s career was spent without headgear. He retired at 35. “You had to respect guys like Wilson because it’s a physical game,” Murray said. “It’s a dangerous game, but not wearing a helmet is something those guys decided they wanted to do.”

4. Rod Langway – 1992-93, Washington Capitals
Rod Langway entered the NHL wearing a helmet, but actually stopped wearing one because of an injury. While playing a game for the Montreal Canadiens in his fourth pro season, Langway was hit from behind and went face-first into the boards. His eyelid was cut and needed stitches. “We had a game the next night, and I knew if I wore a helmet, it was going to hit the stitches and cut them back open,” he said. “So, I took off my helmet and never put it back on.”

Langway, now 62, played the rest of his 15-year career, most notably with the Capitals, without a lid. “I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt,” he said. “I saw more injuries in practices, where there are 100 pucks on the ice, than in games. Ninety-nine percent of the guys never wore helmets in practice, so, what’s the difference in a game?”

3. Randy Carlyle – 1992-93, Winnipeg Jets
Defenseman Randy Carlyle played helmet-free for 1,055 regular season and 69 playoff games in his 17-year NHL career. That’s more games playing without a helmet than anyone else on this list. “I think it’s just a case where we all got into a habit and it’s too late to change,” Carlyle said in 1990. “I mean, it’s not a macho thing…it’s not like we’re all trying to beat each other out and be known as the last guy around without a hat.”

Carlyle, now 63, wasn’t the last guy “without a hat,” as he put it, but he was third-to-last, as he played slightly longer than Wilson or Langway. If you count the 13 seasons Carlyle stood on an NHL bench as a coach, that’s three decades of dodging NHL pucks without a helmet.

2. Brad Marsh – 1992-93, Ottawa Senators
Brad Marsh was known as a shot-blocking specialist during his career and was the second-to-last NHL player to play without a helmet. “You get hit in the face here and there at various times, but it had no relevance to if I had a helmet on,” Marsh said. “When you’re on the ice, you always have to be aware of what’s going on, who else was on the ice, where the puck was being shot from, and so on.”

Marsh did wear a helmet a few times during his 15 years in the league. “I actually wore a helmet for my first couple of games with the Atlanta Flames, but then I told myself, ‘take the damn thing off’,” he said. “In the Marsh household, we grew up watching the Maple Leafs, and I wanted to be like Allan Stanley, Bobby Baun, Tim Horton, any defenseman from that era. So, I didn’t wear a helmet.”

Nine seasons later, Marsh was concussed on Dec. 8, 1987 – the same night goaltender Ron Hextall scored a goal – and wore a helmet for the balance of the season. “During that time frame, I was never hit with so many dirty shots, elbows, high sticks, hits from behind, etc.,” Marsh said. “So, I took the helmet off, because then the game was a lot safer.”

Marsh was 34 and starting his final NHL season when he was traded to the Senators in 1992, and the team initially wanted him to wear a helmet. “The owner at the time questioned the legality of the grandfather clause,” he said. “I actually sat out the first day of training camp until it got straightened out.”

1. Craig MacTavish – 1996-97, St. Louis Blues
Every hockey trivia buff knows Craig MacTavish was the last player to skate in the NHL without a helmet, but many forget that ‘MacT’ actually wore one at the start of his NHL career. When he broke in with the Bruins in 1979, MacTavish was used to wearing a helmet from playing in college and continued to wear one. After five seasons in Boston, MacTavish joined the Oilers and changed his mind on protective headgear. “I practiced all the time without one, and then I decided, ah f--- it, I’m not going to wear one.”

MacTavish played three seasons for the Oilers without a helmet but switched back to wearing one for 1988-89, though he isn’t sure why. “You release a lot of body heat through your head,” he said. “I remember being on the bench, throwing up during a game because I was overheating. I wasn’t used to it, but you quickly get used to it.”

After that, MacTavish ditched the brain bucket for good. “It was more comfortable without one,” he said. “I never had any injuries where a helmet would have helped me. The guys who wore Jofa helmets – that’s no more protective than what I was not wearing.”

By 1993-94, MacTavish, then 35, was the only player in the league without a helmet until he retired at 38 in 1997. Players didn’t chirp him for being the last of the old guard, but a fan did zing him pretty good one time when he was playing for Edmonton. “I’m in Minnesota, on the ice for warmup. As I’m getting off the ice, a fan yells to me ‘Hey MacTavish! Your helmet needs a haircut!’ That was the best line. The whole team was laughing.”

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