If the NHL Wants to Stop Hits to the Head, They Should Ban Helmets

Yes, you read the title correctly. No helmets? Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, no more ridiculous than people in the NHL speaking out that there needs to be stricter hits-to-the-head penalties, an argument sparked by the furor surrounding the concussion sustained by Sidney Crosby after he was hit by David Steckel, which the leagued deemed to be incidental contact.

This has been a major issue in recent years, as concussions and players headhunting were always around, but never thrown into the spotlight as they have been. It seems every year, more and more players go down with injuries and more and more players are being suspended for head shots. What’s funny about all this is, there seemed to only be a spike in concussions and suspensions after the rules were made more strict. I suppose the instigator rule being in effect has a large part of that, as players sometimes feel it is their duty to get a player back in-game and settle for a cheap shot that sometimes causes severe injury.

Pierre Lebrun at ESPN is suggesting that the league should amend rule 48 and make it more broad, thus making it easier for a hit to be penalized, and would hopefully cause players to be more careful and less head injuries would be a result. But there is a problem with this, as Lebrun notes, because hitting is a major part of hockey—it embodies what the sport is all about—hard work, grit, and determination. But if there are now more penalties, wouldn’t that remove hitting from the game all together as players will not bother risking throwing a check? And if no players are hitting, how boring and watered down will the sport become? The game is already a shell of itself, when it reached the height of its popularity in the mid-1990’s, but even so, hitting (and fighting) is what makes this sport special.

My suggestion is, get rid of the helmets. For what, seventy years, people played hockey without helmets and there were dramatically less head injuries during this time. Why? Because there was a code of conduct amongst the players. The game was even nastier back then than it is today, but because no one was wearing a helmet, no one was checked head first into the boards or hit with a blindside elbow. After all, if a player’s head is unprotected, why would he hurt someone else whose head is in the same predicament as his? You think this would be the same as every player is wearing a helmet as opposed to no one wearing a helmet, but as many injuries as helmets do prevent, they are a false sense of security. If someone has their back to you, and they are facing the boards and you check them, if they are wearing a helmet you may feel it is no big deal—the helmet will save them. But if that player is not wearing a helmet, you’re not going to throw that check because maybe later on in the game, when you’re that player facing the boards, someone might nail you.

Hockey was a different animal back then. Gordie Howe, one of the toughest players the sport will ever know, played 1767 games in the NHL and an additional 419 in the WHA. He checked, he fought, he scored goals, all without a helmet, and all without one head injury. How about Craig MacTavish? A player so tough that when the rule came in making it mandatory that players must wear helmets, he chose to still go without one, having been grandfathered in. He would play until 1997 and a total of 1093 games, and you guessed it, he never suffered a concussion.

It is not likely, well, damn near impossible that the NHL would ever do something like this because people would think it’s barbaric. But if you put every player on the ice without a helmet I would almost guarantee the amount of concussions caused by hits to the head would be cut in half, if not even drop more than that. I just wanted to put this all into perspective for you, and hope that one day players will regain this code of conduct and have a mutual respect for one another

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4 thoughts on “If the NHL Wants to Stop Hits to the Head, They Should Ban Helmets

  1. Jim Haggerty

    Greg,

    Intriguing proposition, but I believe that stiffer penalties (including longer suspensions) and better helmets are the way to go. Players today are bigger and faster than in the days of Gordie Howe and even Craig MacTavish but the rink dimensions have not changed (except in Boston and Chicago, where the rinks in the old Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium were a bit shorter than the regulation 200 feet in length). And as Mark Messier pointed out in his interview with you, the glass surrounding the rink has less “give” than it did years ago. The combination of all these factors is, in my mind, the major contributing factor to the increase in concussions.

    Concussions can be reduced in number in the NFL via a reduction in helmet to helmet hits but that is not the case in hockey. One advantage, though, of eliminating helmets is that the players would become more recognizable and that might help the marketability of the league. But I think the potential price to be paid would be too high.

    The NHL has an award named after Bill Masterton, who played for the old Minnesota North Stars. He died as the direct result of hitting his head on the ice after taking a check. Had he been wearing a helmet, the outcome might have been different. Another thing to keep in mind is potential liability in the event an NHL player not wearing a helmet were to suffer a similar fate.

  2. Kelly Ferjutz

    Excuse Me? How can you write that Gordie Howe never suffered a head injury? Balderdash, my good man. On March 29, 1950, during a playoff game against Toronto, Gordie crashed headfirst into the boards, suffering not only a fractured skull but also a severe concussion. For a while it wasn’t known if he’d even survive, let alone play more hockey. Of course he did both! I would refer you to this article, along with dozens of others. Please get your facts straight!

    http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0003873

    artswriter@att.net

  3. Casey Carroll

    I agree with your stance somewhat. I think the NFL should ban helmets, not the NHL. Back when NHL players didn’t wear helmets it was a very different game. Players had day jobs. Stick blades didn’t have any curves so the puck rarely came off the ice. Their sticks rarely came above the waist.
    Like Jim, I agree with what he has to say.

  4. Jim Fry

    I once read an article by brad Marsh who was one of the last remaining helmetless players and he mentioned the time he suffered a head injury and was forced to wear a helmet for several games. He said that during that stretch he got hit in the head more times in one game by errant sticks and high elbows than he did over the course of an entire season! Amazingly when he got rid of the helmet he actually felt safer. The NHL did amend the helmet rule for the 92-93 season once again making the wearing of helmets an option provided the player signed a waiver but from what I remember the only player that took up that option was Greg Smyth and he only did it for a couple of games to try it out. Since then I believe the rule was again re-instated sometime in the late nineties.

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