- The number of NHLers who take the ice before the game without helmets is dwindling, but the practice still offers players a chance to let it fly.
More than any crackling slap shot or board-wobbling hit, “the coolest part” about seeing his hometown team at Maple Leaf Gardens came when Rick Nash arrived early for warmups. There he could study players such as Dougie Gilmour and Darcy Tucker, cruising around without their helmets, hair flapping in the cool rink air. To a young Nash, this freedom signaled prestige, a measure that these were “true professionals,” he says. “It was one of those things you told yourself, ‘If you made the NHL, you’d get to warmup without a helmet on.’”
The tradition survives on equal parts nostalgia and vanity. Some are like Nash, the Rangers winger, eager to follow their idols as kids and paying homage by doing so now. “You think about the guys that did it before you, going no-bucket was the made-it-to-the-NHL moment,” Winnipeg center Mark Schiefele says, “You feel like you’re a hot shot.” Then there is the equally legitimate line of reasoning held by Dallas captain Jamie Benn: “Just because I like to do my hair and try to look good for 10 minutes.”
This being hockey, there are of course unwritten rules. Many teams operate under a 100-game code. Tighten the chinstrap before then, but pass that mark and let your flow fly—or, as Buffalo’s Jack Eichel’s teammates kept urging him, “pick my hair and do it.” But everything is loose; we’re still talking about warmups, after all. When Tanner Pearson’s 99th game happened to land in Toronto two years ago, for instance, the Ontario native asked some Kings veterans for an exception. “I didn’t get razzed about it, but everyone said you got the okay, you’re not going to get fined,” Pearson says.
Indeed, hometown appearances fall under the category of acceptable circumstances. So do birthdays, Winter Classics, prolonged slumps, Hockey Nights in Canada and significant others in town on the road. Some teams will sport ballcaps to raise awareness for various causes; earlier this month P.K. Subban took warmups in a cowboy hat for the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer initiative. But who needs an excuse for looking good? “I remember [defenseman] Mike Green, when I came to the team, his hair looked like he was going out to a restaurant or a bar on Saturday night,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson says. “It was just so tight. He was rocking some good style.”
“I guess it’s a little bit of an ego thing that the older guys do,” says Green’s current teammate in Detroit, Dylan Larkin.
And this being hockey, there are sub-traditions within the traditions. Early into his career with the Blackhawks, winger Troy Brouwer went helmetless at the direction of some older teammates looking for a laugh. Apparently there’s something funny about seeing youngsters stretch their britches like this, since it happens all the time. Last season Washington captain Alex Oveckhkin directed Wilson and center Evgeny Kuznetsov to ditch the headgear, citing the need for fans to see their new haircuts. Out in Winnipeg, meanwhile, Dustin Byfuglien has been known to steal and hide helmets right before warmups. “Once you realize that you made it and you can do it without getting made fun of every game, then you want to,” Brouwer says.
The IIHF requires helmets at all times during international competition, warmups included, but the NHL carries no such official rule—unlike, say, the visor mandate implemented before its 2013-14 season. Anecdotally, though, several of the two-dozen players interviewed felt that the number has been decreasing anyway; it’s uncommon to see more than a handful without helmets before any given game. “I know it’s a topic of conversation for some teams,” Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk says. “Some teams have had bad experiences with it.”
Much of this corresponds to safety concerns. Amid the pregame chaos, pucks whizzing and bodies flying everywhere, taking one to the dome is almost unavoidable. Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik still has a triangle-shaped scar above his left eye from a ricochet off the crossbar. Teammate Nicklas Backstrom has been struck twice in the past year, most recently requiring stitches on October 13 at the Prudential Center. He hasn’t hit the ice without protection up top since.
“It’s like wearing no helmet on a motorcycle,” Orpik says. “You could be the best motorcycle driver in the world and you just need one bad driver to hit you. If you could minimize the risk, I don't know why you wouldn’t.”
“I don’t need to show off my head that much,” Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon says. “It’s rare to get hit in the head, but it happens and that’d be a silly way to get hurt.”
But accidents still happen. Nash remembers. He was on the opposite end of the ice at Nationwide Arena on Jan. 17, 2012 when Edmonton’s Corey Potter stepped on the face of teammate Taylor Hall, who had taken a spill into the boards. Hall wasn’t wearing a helmet, so Potter’s skate left a nasty, snaking gash above his left eye that required 30 stitches. “You could say that I’m lucky that I didn’t get my eye taken out or I didn’t get my throat sliced,” Hall told reporters at the time, “or I’m unlucky because something like this has never happened in the history of the sport with how many guys haven’t worn helmets in warmups.”
Around the league, Hall’s injury changed things. Several teams adopted the better-safe-than-sorry approach by putting the kibosh helmetless warmups altogether. “Never been able to go no-bucket,” Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh says, though he suspects he’d get nervous if he started this far into his career. Players mentioned seeing replays of Hall’s bruised, stitched-up face and suddenly feeling inspired to quit themselves.
Granted, it’s not just about safety. T.J. Oshie found that his long hair kept flapping in his eyes, more annoying than anything else. “It’s hard to do your hair every time before you go out on the ice,” defenseman Roman Josi says. “Too lazy.” But if the tradition eventually fizzles, it’ll be for the right reasons. Taking notice of former Arizona captain Shane Doan’s collision with teammate Jakob Chychrun last season, Nash recently began buckling his chinstrap. “I’ve been guilty of doing it for the first half of my career,” he says. “I got older and got some sense into me.”
Curiously, Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie is among the dwindling number of visorless players but goes safety-first pregame; he earned his first NHL call-up in Atlanta because someone else got hurt pregame and was also there when Hall got cut.
“I need a little bit of luck due to the fact that I don’t wear a visor,” MacKenzie says. “I don’t take my chances in warmups with a helmet.”
After Brouwer signed with the Flames in July ‘16, he asked general manager Brad Treliving whether he could continue going helmetless. It was a quick conversation; team president Brian Burke didn’t allow the practice at his previous stops in Anaheim and Vancouver, either. No dice. Non-negotiable. While disappointed, Brouwer wasn’t about to protest the boss’s rules.
“Now I wear a helmet and hide my glorious hair,” he says