Ice hockey is one of the most popular sports in North America, especially in Canada and the United States. The National Hockey League (NHL) is the highest level of professional ice hockey in North America, featuring the best players from around the world.
The NHL has a rich history spanning more than a century, with many memorable moments and legendary players. However, there was a time when helmets were not mandatory in the league, despite the numerous risks associated with playing without head protection.
“The fact that there are still hundreds of thousands, if not millions, worldwide who stubbornly remain bareheaded while on skates proves that vanity knows no bounds.” -Brett Hull
Over the years, the NHL has implemented various safety rules to protect its players from injury, including requiring players to wear helmets during games. But when exactly did this change occur?
In this article, we’ll explore the timeline of helmet use in the NHL and examine how it has affected the game over the years. We’ll also discuss the impact of other safety measures, such as visors and mouthguards, and look at how player attitudes have evolved regarding protective gear.
If you’re a hockey fan or simply interested in the evolution of sports safety, read on to find out when helmets became mandatory in the NHL!
Early NHL Years: No Helmets
The National Hockey League (NHL) was founded in 1917, and for many years many players played without head protection. In fact, wearing helmets during the early years of the NHL was not only uncommon but also frowned upon.
Players Played Without Head Protection
In the early days of the NHL, it was normal for players to go unprotected. Today’s modern hockey player is equipped with various types of protective gear, including a helmet. However, back then, players were putting themselves in danger on the ice every game. The sport was different back then; players used their fists more frequently, which resulted in far more injuries than we see today.
“During that time, you wouldn’t really think about it – it wasn’t even possible,” former player Yvon Lambert said in an interview with NBC Sports. “We went out there knowing we could get hurt, maybe even seriously. But that never crossed our minds.”
Players Suffered Serious Head Injuries
Due to the lack of protection, players suffered from serious injuries. For instance, in November 1968, Boston Bruins defenseman Ted Green got hit so hard by Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues that he required surgery for his skull fracture. Similarly, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bill Barilko fell headfirst into the boards in May 1951 at a charity all-star game and died instantly due to severe head trauma. He had been playing without a helmet as well.
NHL Did Not Have Any Helmet Rules
Since no rule mandated the use of helmets, most players chose not to wear them. It was purely up to personal preference, often based on a superstition. A few examples include Bobby Hull, who refused to wear a helmet because of his hairstyle and the Detroit Red Wings player Gordie Howe who did not believe helmets were useful.
The NHL’s safety policy in 1979 stated that players entering the league would need to wear a helmet throughout the season, but those already playing could choose whether or not they wanted to wear one.
Players Chose to Play Without Helmets
Despite modern technology that allows us to have all kinds of protection on our heads, some hockey players still choose to play without it. Why is this? Is it for comfort or tradition?
Many former hockey players cite “comfort” as an issue when it comes to wearing helmets. It’s understandable, especially if you think about how heavy and uncomfortable earlier models used to be. Some players even claim that certain helmets can limit their vision or cause them to overheat during games.
“In my mind, there’s no point in being comfortable while going on the ice – I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love being as comfortable as possible,” says Denis Potvin, captain of four consecutive Stanley Cup-winning New York Islanders teams from 1980-83, “but if someone gives me something that impedes what I do out there, then I don’t want it.”
An interesting counterpoint to this argument exists via players like Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens who famously lost a piece of his ear after getting hit by the puck. He now wears a protective visor over his face in addition to a helmet, saying “You learn your lesson and realize it’s not worth taking careless risks at any point.”
The NHL did not require its players to wear helmets until 1979, but by that time, almost every player personally chose to be protected. Now, helmets are mandatory for all incoming players who enter the league. However, even with such stringent rules now in place, some players still opt out of donning head protection.
1979-80 Season: First Helmet Rule
The National Hockey League (NHL) had its first helmet rule during the 1979-80 season. It was implemented to improve the safety of players while playing on the ice. The decision came after a few years of continuous lobbying by doctors, fans, and even some players.
All New Players Were Required to Wear Helmets
Starting from the 1979-80 season, all new players entering the NHL were required to wear helmets. The rule applied to both skaters and goaltenders, and it was mandatory for them to keep their helmets strapped on securely at all times when they were out on the ice. This was done to ensure that there was no compromise in terms of player safety, especially those who were just starting their careers and likely less experienced and more prone to injuries.
“I think we have been somewhat late doing this, but I am optimistic that with the introduction of the mandatory wearing of helmets, we have taken a significant step forward with respect to safer hockey.” – John Ziegler Jr., NHL President
The NHL president hoped that the move would set an example for other leagues worldwide and lead to wider adoption of similar safety measures across different sports. There were some concerns about whether the helmets would affect the way players played, and how comfortable they would be in them, but overall, most players complied with the rule once it was made mandatory for the next batch of rookies starting their season.
Existing Players Were Allowed to Play Without Helmets
While new entrants to the NHL had to follow the helmet rule, existing players were allowed to choose whether to continue without head protection or not. Almost half of the players already playing in the league decided against wearing helmets, including notable players like Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull.
“The guys wanted to choose for themselves. The NHL decided that anyone who hadn’t worn a helmet before didn’t have to.” – Dave Keon, Former Toronto Maple Leafs player
The option of not wearing helmets caused some problems in terms of enforcement because it was difficult to adjudicate when head collisions occurred between a helmeted and non-helmeted player due to the differing rules that applied to them. However, as time went on and more information became available regarding brain injuries suffered by hockey players, even those who had been initially resistant or indifferent to wearing helmets began to change their tune. This eventually led to all players being required to wear helmets from the 2002-03 season onwards.
While the first helmet rule introduced during the 1979-80 NHL season did make a difference in improving player safety, it only extended to new entrants to the league. Existing players still continued to skate without any protection on their heads, leading to concerns about accidents involving helmeted and non-helmeted players. Nonetheless, the rule paved the way for later changes that helped ensure the welfare of professional ice hockey players through improved protective gear and awareness about the dangers of concussions and other head injuries.
Grandfather Clause: Players Could Opt-Out
The NHL made helmets mandatory for all new players entering the league in 1979. However, it wasn’t until the 1979-1980 season that all players were required to wear helmets during play.
Existing players who had played before the introduction of the helmet rule were given the option to “grandfather out” and continue playing without a helmet if they chose to do so. This created divided treatment on the ice between those who wore helmets and those who did not.
“It was Nystrom’s fourth career hat trick, and he scored three goals in less than six minutes early in the third period — about four decades after most of his peers started wearing helmets.” -ESPN
Even after the deadline for the grandfather clause passed, some players continued to play without helmets. They believed wearing a helmet could hinder their performance or even cause injuries by limiting their peripheral vision.
Existing Players Could Choose to Play Without Helmets
The decision to make helmets mandatory in the NHL came after years of debate and pushback from some players. In fact, the first player to ever wear a helmet in an NHL game, George Owen, was ridiculed and mocked by fellow players.
Eventually, more and more players saw the benefits of wearing head protection and began voluntarily donning helmets. It wasn’t until several serious head injuries occurred that the league finally mandated them for all new players entering the league.
Despite this, older players who hadn’t worn helmets for their entire careers were hesitant to make the switch and felt that it should be a personal choice rather than a requirement.
“I’ve always worn a helmet in practice and shields,” said Hall of Famer Mark Messier, who played from 1979 through 2004. “But the style of game I played, you couldn’t wear a helmet in those days and play as physical as it was.” -CNN
Some Players Opted Out and Continued to Play Without Helmets
Even with the increase in awareness about head injuries and safety concerns on the ice, some players continued to opt-out of wearing helmets well into the 1990s and early 2000s.
In fact, even Hall of Fame goalie Jacques Plante didn’t start wearing a mask until 1959 after he suffered a gruesome facial injury during a game. It wasn’t until this event that other goalies began to consider using masks.
“I think if the league made every player use one then there wouldn’t be any need for me to worry,” said Don Cherry, former NHL coach and commentator. “But you wonder if those guys who refuse to skate without a lid are doing it because they can hear better or feel more liberated out there. That’s disturbing in view of what we now know the negative impact of taking too many shots to the unprotected melon can have down the line.” -The Globe and Mail
Today, all NHL players are required to wear helmets and other forms of protective gear while playing the sport. The league continues to make strides in improving player safety and creating awareness around the importance of proper equipment use.
2006-07 Season: Full Implementation
The National Hockey League (NHL) has a long history, with the first game dating back to 1917. For almost one hundred years, players were not required to wear helmets during games. However, there was an increase in head injuries, and as a result, the NHL made significant changes for the safety of its players.
All Players Were Required to Wear Helmets
In 1979, the NHL made it mandatory for all new players to wear helmets during gameplay. Although this was a step forward, veteran players who had signed their NHL contracts before the helmet implementation could still play without wearing them. It wasn’t until 1997 that some players were given the option to have a “grandfather clause” added to their contract that would allow them to continue playing bareheaded.
This caused controversy because many fans felt that over time, younger players would feel pressure to follow suit when deciding whether or not to wear a helmet if they saw their role models playing without one. Additionally, medical evidence clearly showed that wearing helmets could decrease the risk of head injury. Because of these concerns, the league began to take a more serious look at implementing stricter guidelines requiring helmets for all players.
Players Could Be Fined for Not Wearing Helmets
After years of debate, the NHL finally made helmets mandatory for all players beginning in the 2006-07 season. This meant that even veteran players would have to wear a helmet while on the ice – regardless of any preexisting arrangements within their contracts.
In order to enforce this rule, the league implemented heavy fines for anyone caught violating the regulation. The first offense resulted in a warning, while subsequent violations could lead up to $1,000 in penalties. These penalties acted as a deterrent to ensure the rule was followed.
It’s important to note that although helmets are now mandatory, there is still some pushback against this. Some players feel that it impacts their vision, hearing and overall comfort while playing – but ultimately understand the risks associated with not wearing one.
“A helmet gives you confidence and makes you feel safe out on the ice,” said Colorado Avalanche forward J.T. Compher. “You’re not going to be able to take away all the risk from the game of hockey… but I think if we can do things like keep helmets required, then I’m definitely for it.”
The NHL made helmets mandatory in 2006-07 after a slow implementation process over several decades. This decision came after overwhelming evidence proved the benefits of wearing them and concerns regarding non-helmet-wearing professional athletes influencing younger generations. The heavy fines enforced by the league ensured compliance and made safety a top priority for the sport.
Controversy: Some Players Resisted Helmet Rule
The National Hockey League (NHL) introduced a mandatory helmet rule in 1979, making it compulsory for all players to wear helmets while on the ice. While this decision was seen as a positive step towards player safety by many, some players resisted the new rule and refused to wear helmets.
Players Felt Helmets Were Uncomfortable and Restricted Vision
Many players who opposed the helmet rule believed that helmets were uncomfortable to wear and restricted their vision. They argued that wearing a helmet could put them at greater risk of injury as they had limited peripheral vision, which made it harder to see other players coming from different directions.
“You can’t hear anything when you have your helmet on,” said former NHL forward Mike Gartner. “It’s like being in a cave or something.”
Despite these concerns, studies have shown that wearing a properly fitted helmet reduces the risk of head injuries in hockey by up to 85%. The science is clear: helmets offer essential protection against concussions and other serious head injuries.
Some Players Believed Helmets Were Bad Luck and Affected Performance
For some players, superstition played an important role in their opposition to the helmet rule. Many believed that wearing a helmet would bring bad luck or negatively affect their performance on the ice.
“I never thought I’d play with one,” said Hall of Fame defenseman Bobby Orr about helmets. “In my mind, it was a sign of weakness, really.”
These beliefs were not supported by any evidence, and many players eventually came around to accepting helmets once they saw how effective they could be in protecting against head injuries.
NHL Faced Criticism for Not Enforcing Helmet Rule Strongly Enough
Although the NHL had made helmets mandatory for all players, it faced criticism for not enforcing the rule strongly enough. Some players continued to play without a helmet, and the league did little to stop them.
“It was really only some of the older players who didn’t want to wear one,” said former NHL player Ken Daneyko. “The young guys coming in just figured that’s what you did.”
The controversy over the helmet rule died down as more and more players began wearing helmets voluntarily, recognizing their importance in preventing head injuries on the ice. Today, it is virtually unheard of for an NHL player to take the ice without a helmet – a testament to how far we have come in prioritizing player safety in hockey.
Impact: Helmet Use Has Improved Player Safety
The use of helmets in ice hockey is now mandatory for all players. This was not always the case, and it took several years before the NHL made helmets a requirement.
Helmets became an optional piece of equipment in the NHL during the 1970-71 season. However, many players continued to play without helmets due to concerns about comfort and mobility. Some players even felt that wearing a helmet could put them at greater risk of injury if they were targeted by opposing players looking to make a point.
It wasn’t until almost two decades later, in the 1989-90 season, that the NHL finally made helmets mandatory for all new players entering the league. Older players were grandfathered in and allowed to continue playing without helmets, but the vast majority chose to wear them anyway as they recognized the benefits.
Significantly Reduced Head Injuries and Concussions
Since helmets became mandatory in the NHL, there has been a significant reduction in head injuries and concussions. While no piece of equipment can completely eliminate the risk of injury from contact sports, helmets have proven to be a vital component in protecting players from serious head injuries.
According to research from the Mayo Clinic, “Wearing a helmet may reduce your risk of a serious brain or head injury.” Helmets provide a layer of protection between the skull and any external impact, helping to absorb the force of a hit and reducing the likelihood of a concussion or other brain injury.
In addition to preventing direct hits to the head, helmets can also reduce the severity of whiplash-type injuries that can occur when a player is checked into the boards or collides with another player on the ice.
Players Feel More Confident and Protected When Wearing Helmets
Another benefit of mandatory helmet use is the increased sense of confidence and protection that players feel when they step onto the ice. No longer do they need to worry about the risk of serious head injuries from collisions with other players or hard shots from the opposing team.
Players also report feeling more comfortable and in control when wearing a helmet, as it provides an additional layer of stability and support for their neck and spine. This helps them stay balanced on the ice even during heavy contact situations.
In addition to the physical benefits, there are also psychological advantages to wearing a helmet. Many players report feeling less anxious and stressed when playing with a helmet, as they know that they are taking every precaution possible to protect themselves from injury.
Helmet Technology Continues to Improve and Evolve
The NHL’s move towards mandatory helmet use has not only improved player safety but has also spurred innovation in helmet design and technology. Today’s hockey helmets are lighter, more durable, and more customizable than ever before, allowing players to tailor their equipment to fit their individual needs and preferences.
- Helmets now feature advanced padding materials that can better absorb impacts and reduce the risk of concussion
- New ventilation systems help keep players cool and comfortable on the ice, even during intense game action
- Adjustable chin straps and size options ensure maximum comfort and fit for any player, regardless of height or weight
While the NHL took some time to fully embrace the necessity of helmet use, its decision has had a major impact on player safety and wellbeing. The mandatory adoption of helmets has reduced the number of head injuries and concussions suffered by hockey players at all levels. Through continued innovation and improvement, we can expect to see even more advances in helmet technology and protection in the years to come.
Frequently Asked Questions
What year did the NHL make helmets mandatory?
The NHL made helmets mandatory for all players during the 1979-80 season, becoming the last major professional league to mandate helmet use. Previously, helmets were optional for players.
Were there any players who refused to wear helmets when they became mandatory?
Yes, some players did refuse to wear helmets when they became mandatory, including Craig MacTavish, who famously played without a helmet until 1996. However, the number of players who refused to wear helmets decreased over time, and today all players wear helmets.
What was the reason behind making helmets mandatory in the NHL?
The NHL made helmets mandatory to increase player safety and reduce the risk of head injuries. The decision was made after several players suffered serious head injuries, including Minnesota North Stars player Bill Masterton, who died after hitting his head on the ice in 1968.
Did any players experience backlash or negative effects from the new helmet rule?
Some players initially resisted the new helmet rule, arguing that it would limit their vision and mobility on the ice. However, over time players became more comfortable with wearing helmets, and today they are considered an essential piece of equipment for player safety.
Were there any exceptions to the helmet rule, such as for goaltenders?
Goaltenders were initially exempt from the helmet rule, but they became mandatory for goaltenders in 1979-80. Today, all players on the ice, including goaltenders, are required to wear helmets.
Has there been any discussion or consideration of removing the mandatory helmet rule in the NHL?
There has been some discussion of removing the mandatory helmet rule in the NHL, particularly among players who argue that it restricts their freedom on the ice. However, there is little support for removing the rule, as most players and experts agree that helmets are necessary for player safety.