Since wearing a helmet became mandatory in the NHL in 1979, hockey equipment has continued to evolve and to provide added protection as well as enhanced performance. Hockey helmets, skates and protective gear remained relatively unchanged for decades, but by the 1970s the industry began to focus on better protection as well as equipment that gave a competitive edge.
Following the tragic on-ice death of a NHL player Bill Masterton in 1968, caused by a massive brain injury, the League began to mandate the use of helmets. There was such resistance among players and fans that when the rule as enacted in 1979, it only applied to new players. Old-timers were “grandfathered” in and were exempt from the helmet rule. Today, visors and cages remain optional for professional hockey players, but are required by in college and youth teams.
While early helmets were little more than a hard shell that primarily protected the skin from pucks, sticks and other player’s elbows, today’s helmets are designed to decrease the impact of hitting the ice. Made of a combination of either vinyl nitrile or polypropelene foam, modern helmets fit better, are lighter and more comfortable, and distribute the force of impact to protect the brain and skull.
More accurate testing methods and higher standards have resulted in cages and visors that are more comfortable and that allow for better visibility. Not only are the materials more impact resistant, they also enable players to see better and therefore avoid collisions with other players, reducing the incidence of eye and facial injuries. Contemporary helmets and face shields are improved each year, offering more impact absorption and better fit. It is also believed that advances in face shields that stabilize the jaw reduce concussions during impact, resulting in fewer serous injuries each year.