Upon request, Montreal Canadiens defenseman Murray Baron takes
down his two CCM brand helmets from the shelf above his locker.
They are four or five years old and look it. The white home
helmet is lined with a quarter inch of foam padding so brittle
from drenchings in sweat that it appears petrified. The blue
road helmet has a more supple but equally thin liner that Baron
removed from another brand of helmet and fitted so haphazardly
into the CCM that the foam is loose over one ear.
It's easy to get into Baron's helmets. It's hard to get into his
head. Why? Why does Baron use a helmet that is old, poorly
padded and customized to the point of being dangerous? At a time
when the NHL is campaigning for standardized helmets, when the
NHL Players' Association is warning members about the danger of
concussions, when a promising 20-year-old like Brett Lindros of
the New York Islanders has retired because of repeated
concussions and a star like Pat LaFontaine of the Buffalo Sabres
suffers from postconcussion syndrome, which threatens his
career, why does Baron play in a helmet that is further past its
prime than Saturday Night Live? Baron considers the question and
He is hardly alone. According to separate surveys by the NHL and
the NHLPA, 29% of players--three of 10 skaters on every
shift--wear helmets that don't meet impact standards set by the
Canadian Standards Association (CSA), a nonprofit organization
that evaluates product safety. This should be good news,
considering that a year ago 50% of players wore helmets that
didn't meet the standards. However, some trainers, equipment
managers and helmet manufacturers believe the NHL-NHLPA figures
severely underestimate the number of unsafe helmets because of
the players' rampant doctoring of the padding and the advanced
age of many helmets.
Ken Hall, vice president of research and development for Karhu
Canada (the sister company for Sweden-based Jofa), which
produces 6% of the helmets used in the NHL, says about 60% of
NHL helmets don't have their shock-attenuation properties
intact. Willa Dwyer, product manager for CCM helmets, which has
almost two thirds of the NHL market, estimates as many as eight
in 10 players wear helmets that don't meet impact standards.
Says Islanders team doctor Elliot Pellman, "Some guys are
wearing helmets that are so poor you might as well put a baggy
over their heads. I don't understand the logic of it."
December 30, 1996
"We've got nine players whose helmet lining is a quarter inch
[instead of the five-eighths thickness of most certified
helmets]," says trainer John Wharton of the Detroit Red Wings, a
team on which only four of 25 players wear approved helmets.
"You get better protection from a Dixie cup."
Seventeen players, including notables such as LaFontaine and
Paul Kariya of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, have had concussions in
the first three months of this season, thus continuing the
alarming trend in 1995-96 when 70 concussions resulted in
players' missing a total of 240 games. LaFontaine still suffers
mood swings, depression and headaches from the concussion--the
fifth of his 14-year NHL career--he suffered on Oct. 17. "I've
told my wife it's like riding a bike, and a super train pulls up
and takes you for a ride," he says of the lingering effects of
the concussions. "For the first time in my life I feel like I
have no control over what's happening to me."
Although exact figures on concussions are difficult to ascertain
for seasons before 1993-94 (until then concussions were reported
to the league only if a player missed at least one game),
mounting statistical and anecdotal evidence has the NHL and
NHLPA crawling toward a greater understanding of an injury that
until recently had not been taken seriously. That's quite a
change, because traditionally in hockey an injury is not an
injury unless it can be splinted, scoped or sutured. Head
injuries accounted for only 8% of the NHL's lost man-games last
season, although Canadiens team surgeon David Mulder notes that
the seriousness of concussions--traumatically induced
disturbances of neurological functions--dwarf their proportion
because they can have a lifelong effect. In order to reduce the
number of concussions, Mulder says, "there are only two
practical areas you can look at: the way the game is played and
The NHL has been studying its game, including factors like the
new seamless rink glass that Calgary Flames defenseman James
Patrick, who has had four concussions in 14 seasons, likens to a
brick wall. But hockey is hockey. Players are bigger--on
average, two inches taller and 14 pounds heavier than 25 years
ago--and faster. Mass x acceleration = trouble. Hitting will
always define NHL hockey, even though five years ago the league
adopted rules to keep the hired help from attacking each other
from behind, a move made to protect its investment.
That leaves equipment. "The Number 1 flaw in our system," NHL
director of hockey operations Brian Burke says, "is helmets."
"In football there are many variables you can't control, but you
can eliminate the variable of unsafe equipment because the
players have to wear certified helmets," says Toronto Maple
Leafs athletic therapist Chris Broadhurst. "You can't say that
about hockey because all helmets don't conform. What you need to
do is make them conform, and then five years later you might
say, O.K., so there was no change in the number of head
injuries, but at least we've eliminated the equipment variable
in the equation."
New York Rangers trainer Jim Ramsay says perhaps a quarter of
the concussions he sees each season might have been prevented by
a CSA-approved helmet. The NHLPA suggests that the correlation
between inadequate helmets and concussions is much lower: It
points out that helmets had nothing to do with the concussions
suffered by eight Islanders last season. Certainly Kariya's
concussion on Nov. 13--Maple Leafs defenseman Mathieu Schneider
elbowed him in the forehead--wouldn't have been prevented unless
Kariya had been wearing a football helmet.
In October 1995 Broadhurst and CSA technicians conducted impact
tests on 10 Leafs helmets that varied in length of use from new
to a year, dropping them from .8 of a meter at an impact
velocity of 3.96 meters per second, to replicate the force of a
solid bodycheck. Broadhurst found two helmets with a
three-eighths-inch lining transferred more than 400 G's to a
transducer inside the helmet (the acceptable level is 275 G's or
below). By comparison, a new helmet with a five-eighths-inch
lining transferred only 133 G's. "Every time it takes a good
hit, the helmet deforms a little bit," Broadhurst says. "So do
its protective properties. You take a guy who has been wearing
the same helmet for 10 years, and you have to ask just how much
protection he really has."
The test Broadhurst and the CSA couldn't conduct was the
empirical mirror test. In this procedure a player is handed a
new helmet, places it on his head, ambles over to a
dressing-room mirror and looks. If the helmet appears
flattering, he keeps it. If it appears too bulky, he might grab
a scalpel or an X-acto knife and start carving out padding. It's
all about vanity.
Many players seem more interested in Mr. Blackwell's
best-dressed list than in the injured-reserve list. Fashion
critics abound. When forward Vincent Damphousse was traded from
the Edmonton Oilers to Montreal in 1992, his new teammates
borrowed his big, round Jofa 366 model, set paper cups on the
dressing-room floor and used the helmet as a bowling ball.
While NHL officials complain about the players' disregard for
helmet safety, the sorry fact is that helmets were not even
obligatory until this season. Although helmets had been
mandatory for all players who entered the league after October
1979, a misguided '92 rule championed by then league president
Gil Stein gave a player the option of playing without a helmet
if he signed a waiver. The rule was quietly rescinded last
summer. (The St. Louis Blues' 38-year-old Craig MacTavish, who
came into the NHL in 1979 and therefore was grandfathered from
having to obey the '79 helmet rule, is the league's only
helmetless player.) Commissioner Gary Bettman, who discussed
helmet standardization with the NHLPA as recently as a month
ago, has suggested that all players entering the league and
those with only a few years in it be obliged to wear
CSA-certified helmets. Although NHLPA associate counsel Mike
Liut concedes that the NHL has a point, the union still favors,
he says, "informed freedom of choice." In a
collective-bargaining session during the lockout two years ago,
defenseman Marty McSorley, now with the San Jose Sharks,
declared that he could never be forced to add even an ounce of
padding to his helmet because the discomfort would alter his game.
McSorley wears a Jofa 235, which essentially has remained
unchanged since it was introduced 25 years ago in Sweden. The
235, with a thin shell and small strips of foam in the front and
back, was designed for broomball, a game played on ice in
rubber-spiked shoes. When the 235 is placed on a table next to
the Jofa 390 worn by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr and
Damphousse's 366, the differences are obvious. The 390 and the
366 have a thick plastic shell and bulky padding inside, while
the 235 looks as if it should be on the shelf next to Tickle Me
Elmo. A sticker on the back of the 235 warns that it shouldn't
be used for hockey, in-line skating or any velocity or contact
sport. Karhu won't even sell the 235 to NHL teams; if players
want it, they must buy it retail. While use of the 235 has
dwindled to five players, the holdouts--McSorley, Anaheim's Jari
Kurri, Detroit's Igor Larionov, the Vancouver Canucks' Esa
Tikkanen and a mildly influential guy named Wayne Gretzky of the
Rangers--won't give it up.
"We've asked Wayne to please stop using it," John Pagotto, Karhu
Group senior vice president for worldwide hockey, says of what
usually is referred to as the Gretzky helmet. "He said it's been
part of his look since he came into the NHL, and he won't
change." Gretzky declined to be interviewed for this story.
Former Chicago Blackhawks left wing Michel Goulet, a future Hall
of Famer whose 548 goals rank 14th in NHL history, also was
wearing a Jofa 235 on the night of March 16, 1994, when he
crashed headfirst into the boards at the Montreal Forum. He was
in a coma for seven days. Goulet, now the director of player
personnel for the Colorado Avalanche, still has headaches.
"Players feel, It won't happen to me," says Goulet, whose career
was cut short at age 33. "They feel indestructible. That's what
I felt. It's amazing to me the league doesn't stand up and say,
'Hey, if you don't wear the kind of helmet that's approved, then
you can't play in the league.' What do they need, somebody to
die on the ice?"
The irony is that helmets have contributed to that false sense
of invincibility. When helmets went on, the game got rougher. In
a way, the idea that helmets were needed for protection became a
self-fulfilling prophesy. "No question there's a lack of respect
for [the well-being of] fellow players now," says Canadiens
defenseman David Wilkie, who suffered four concussions in one
year in juniors and now wears upper and lower mouthpieces to
absorb and diffuse the energy from potentially concussive blows
to his face. Wilkie, who sees only sporadic ice time, says he is
whacked from behind at least once a match despite the rules. In
the prehelmet NHL, hits from behind were rare.
Eventually attrition will kill off helmet dinosaurs like
McSorley, but progress is slow. With its lectures on concussions
this fall, the NHLPA has induced some players to change, but the
union won't compel players to wear CSA-certified helmets. "The
National Football League is completely different from the NHL,"
says Pellman, the Islanders physician who also works with the
New York Jets. "In the NHL the players essentially tell the
equipment managers what to do. In the NFL the equipment managers
tell the players what to do, and the Players Association backs
Nor has the NHL exhausted its safety options. Next month the
league's team doctors will adopt a common scale for grading
concussions, but the NHL is still waffling on neuropsychological
testing. Burke says the NHL is considering underwriting
so-called baseline tests, which measure a player's mental acuity
and provide a basis of comparison after concussions, although he
notes the total cost, more than $200,000, is steep. That works
out to about $325 a player. "Three hundred a player?" Buffalo
president Larry Quinn says. "Hell, I give them more than that in
per diems on a road trip." The Sabres plan to start baseline
testing on all their players after Christmas.
Serious concussions can take a long time to heal, but the
ancillary issue of helmet safety could be fixed tomorrow if the
will were there.
A LUCKY STAR
After the first goal Los Angeles Kings defenseman Rob Blake
smiled and said, "O.K., Tony, one's enough." After the second
goal Blake told him, "C'mon, Tony, two's plenty." After the
third goal Blake told left wing Tony Granato of the San Jose
Sharks, a former teammate and his best friend in hockey, "O.K.,
Tony, now I'm going to have to hit you."
Granato laughed, and with good reason. On Feb. 14, 1996, eight
months before that hat trick in the Sharks' second game of the
1996-97 season, Granato underwent a four-hour operation to
remove an intracranial hematoma, an abnormal cluster of blood
vessels in the left temporal lobe of his brain--surgery that
Granato figured would end his playing career.
Neurosurgeon Neil Martin of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.,
thinks Granato's condition might have been present since birth,
but it probably worsened last Jan. 25 when Granato slid
headfirst into the boards after colliding with the Hartford
Whalers' Jeff Brown. Granato played one more game for the Kings
before the pounding in his head and the memory loss became more
than he could bear.
On the day of the operation Granato, 32, had one thought: I hope
I wake up. When he did, the debilitating headaches were gone.
His mind was clear. After extensive tests in Los Angeles and a
visit to the Mayo Clinic last August, Granato was told by
doctors that he could resume his career, that he would be at no
more risk of receiving a head injury than anyone else in the
NHL. In fact, Granato is now at less risk than many players.
After signing as a free agent with San Jose in August, Granato
switched to a tight-fitting CCM helmet with a
five-eighths-of-an-inch-thick foam liner that has an additional
eighth-inch piece of dense foam between the shell and the
lining. At the time that he hit his head on the boards he was
wearing a helmet with quarter-inch padding, which is still a
popular model in the NHL. "I didn't realize the equipment I was
wearing was so inadequate," Granato says. "But it was
comfortable, and I liked that. In hindsight I wonder how I could
have overlooked [the safety factor]. Now, seeing guys practice
without helmets, that's scary."
While Granato, who had 11 goals at week's end, doesn't shy away
from contact, he isn't the chippy hellion he once was. "I'm
smarter," he says. "I pick my spots." --M.F.