Remember the good old days of professional ice hockey? When there were no helmets or face masks, and only questionable padding? Pop in a video of the Bobby Orr era and see what the goalies wore. If they donned anything at all, it was a thin, plastic face shield. Yes, those were the days of broken noses, lost teeth, and countless lacerations (or worse!) to the head and body.
Fast forward to today, when you send your son or daughter out on the ice with full-body coverage, complete with helmet and face mask. But as you look at the hundreds of dollars of equipment you’ve purchased and strapped on your child, that nagging question still remains in the back of your mind: “Is hockey any safer nowadays?”
The last 30 years of youth hockey have seen lots of changes in equipment that have taken the sting out of many hockey injuries. The “Tuk blade,” with its plastic blade holder system, has virtually eliminated any injuries due to blade breakage. New materials like trocellen foam, which is a high-density polyethylene, has resulted in better, lighter equipment. All manufacturers of hockey equipment do their own in-house testing of materials and products and are always looking for ways to improve the safety of the player.
Technology begets safety
“The number one focus at CCM,” says Norm Kay, Advertising Promotions Manager, “is increased protection, flexibility, and reduction in weight of equipment.”
“Take the evolution of shoulder pads, for example. Thirty years ago, you did not see the add-on chest and back protector that we have nowadays. There is better equipment today. The standards are there, and technology has brought it to a new level.”
Before purchasing equipment, Kay suggests that first you evaluate the level of play your skater is at, and how often he or she plays. Then choose your equipment based on those needs.
“The number one concern.” says Kay, “is to make sure the equipment fits and that you are satisfied with the protection covering all vital areas!”
The biggest change in modern-day equipment—certainly the one with the most impact—is the mandatory wearing of helmets and face masks. Standards for both have been set, and in place since the early 1970s, by the Canadian Standards Association and the Hockey Equipment Certification Counsel (H.E.C.C.) and, in the U.S., by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).
Face masks work
Before the use of face masks, most hockey injuries occurred above the shoulders, with the majority of them being lacerations and contusions. But since their use became widespread, eye and facial injuries have gone way down, and blinding eye injuries became virtually non-existent. Score one point for the face masks!
There is still some controversy over the protection value of the helmet, however. What it does do is prevent soft-tissue damage to the face and scalp. What it does not do is protect the neck—and catastrophic spinal cord injuries can be the result. Before 1970, this kind of injury was practically unknown. But by the 1980’s there were 15 per year in Canadian ice hockey alone. The last cervical spine paralysis in the U.S. was in 1988 in a high school player from Massachusetts. This type of injury may be due in part to the aggressiveness of today’s players and their feelings of invincibility because they are wearing helmets and face masks. In the old days, one theory goes, players had more respect for an unprotected head.
This type of serious injury is the result of a sudden, axial loading of the spine, where the top of the head hits the boards at a high speed, and a fracture or rupture of the vertebrae in the neck damages the spinal cord. “Still, your risk of having this happen,” says Dr. John Powell, Certified Athletic Trainer, Ph.D., and Athletic Research Consultant in Iowa, “is far greater while driving in the car to the game than (it is) on the ice. This (low risk of injury) shouldn’t stop people from asking what can we do to prevent it, however.”
Learn to take a check
“Injury prevention is the number one concern of USA Hockey’s Safety and Protective Equipment Committee,” says Chairman Dr. Alan B. Ashare. “And it takes a multi-pronged approach: equipment standards, playing rules, coaching techniques, and player awareness.
“The first line of defense in preventing injuries,” says Dr. Ashare, “is to learn how to give and take a check properly.”
The majority of injuries today occur because of illegal and/or improper checking into the boards or crossbars. Most affect the wrist, shoulders, and knees. Currently, the largest amount occur in the Bantam age group, a statistic attributable partly to the fact that Bantam simply has the biggest number of skaters nationwide.
According to USA Hockey Insurance Risk Manager John Bjeldanes, “That is also the group with the biggest differential in skating size. “Matching players according to ability and size,” says Bjeldanes, “helps a great deal in controlling accidents.”
New rules for stricter calling of penalties for illegal checks and stick violations are now in place, and continually need to be implemented by referees. Coaching techniques should also be looked at, especially if a team receives a high number of penalties game after game. All of these steps will help insure that hockey will be played as it was meant to be.
“I still recommend the game,” says Dr. Ashare. “It is a safe sport, with a low number of injuries, and well protected players.”
Tips to play by
In an effort to play the game as safely as possible, keep these tips in mind:
• Buy equipment with the highest level of protection for your level of play.
• Always insure proper fit of hockey equipment.
• Wear only H.E.C.C. certified helmets & face masks.
• Play the game as it’s supposed to be played.
• Be familiar with USA Hockey’s Insurance coverage.
• Make sure your own Club has injury prevention/First Aid program.
Keep in mind that the largest number (50%) of injury claims in hockey today, come from non-participants. Spectators in the stands are slipping in rinks or getting hit by pucks. Perhaps they’re the ones who should be wearing helmets! l
Bettina Prochnow Young is a hockey player with the PCHA on a coed team and has two sons in hockey. She is a columnist for a newspaper in Livermore, CA.
This first appeared in the 12/1994 issue of Hockey