NHLers Oppose Mandatory Helmet Rule


It’s a good thing they put his name at the bottom otherwise he’d be unrecognizable 

I think after public speaking and death the most common fear is change. Generally speaking people like things the way they are. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. The NHL has had a tempestuous history with changes to the game over the years, especially in matters of player safety. 

The NHL did not mandate the use of helmets for all of its players until 1979. This was eleven years after Bill Masterton died on the ice due to a head injury sustained during play. Many people claim that the NHL will not do anything about fighting until a player dies, I don’t know if even that would be enough. Adoption of the helmet was met with resistance from around the league. Here are some quotes from an NHL coach at the time.

 “Next, they’ll have everyone in armour. What they’ve done is taken the identity out of the hockey player. Can you imagine Guy Lafleur flying up the ice with a bubble helmet on his head?”

“The intellectual liberals who run the league don’t realize there’s more stick play if players wear helmets. They’re going to be sorry. First it was the fighting.  The next thing will be facemasks.”

“For eight years we used to watch (Toronto’s) Darryl Sittler cruising up the ice with that curly blonde hair and he was the leader. But with the helmet you won’t even notice him.”

“I mean how many head injuries have there been in hockey the last four years? None that I can think of.”1

To the surprise of no one, that is Colorado Rockies coach Don Cherry deriding the adoption of helmets. 

Many were concerned that helmets would make players harder to identify on the ice, and take away from their "mystique". This concern was echoed by current General Manager of the Anaheim Ducks and then Chicago Blackhawk, Bob Murray. "Aside from the discomfort, about the only drawback is that the fans can’t identify the players as easily." 

When a current player speaks out about the "state of the game" or safety issues many fans take their opinion as vindication of the status quo as the purest form of the game. Unfortunately NHL players have long be on the wrong side of history when it comes to safety issues. If I was a Sharks fan I’d be concerned about these comments from current GM and also a member of the 1979 Chicago Blackhawks Doug Wilson: "I just don’t like helmets. When I had a couple of concussions last year, I had to wear a helmet, but as soon as I could I quit. I think I player better without it."2 

NHL players and coaches, and Andy Sutton may be "hockey experts" but they are not necessarily safety experts. On one hand our natural resistance to change is beneficial insomuch as it prevents us from acting rashly. On the other it can impede the enactment of necessary and meaningful changes. The NHL has been on the wrong side of player safety before, I just hope they can move to the other side in less than eleven years. 

  1.  Morning briefing. 1979. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), Aug 23, 1979.
  2. Sports opinion. 1979. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file), Oct 21, 1979.