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I don't really care if it's the 1970s or 1980s. The point is that I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw footage of old hockey matches where the players had... no helmets. As if it were faked or something. It seemed like insanity to me, and I even heard somebody suggest that they used to consider the idea of wearing one to be "sissy"! As in, it was a manly pride thing to not wear any helmet for protection... which just seems beyond stupid to me.

Soldiers have had helmets in wars/battles/while training for a very long time, even though they can easily be shot in the chest or elsewhere with no protection. Manly construction workers don't mind (to the best of my knowledge) wearing a helmet at the construction site due to the risk of falling hammers and whatnot.

On the other hand, I have taken up bicycling again recently after years of not leaving the house, and I don't feel the need to use a helmet even though I really thought I would feel scared for my life every second prior to actually sitting back on that saddle and pedaling around. Maybe it's the same thing here: you imagine that it's oh-so-dangerous to be on the ice rink without a helmet, and enlarge the danger in your imagination, but in reality, you very rarely hit your head even if you do fall, and the hockey puck is very unlikely to come flying towards your face in practice?

I won't pretend to be any kind of sports expert or even fan, but I'm not aware of serious injuries to the head being a major issue for ice-hockey players prior to them switching to requiring helmets. Then again, maybe that was the reason that they did start using them?

The fact that they didn't use them for so long suggests to me that they weren't really necessary in the context of playing ice-hockey. What changed?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Nij
    Jul 1 at 20:26
  • In modern days, soldiers only started wearing helmets again from about 1915/16 due to shells. For several hundred years before that, it was mainly the cuirassiers (heavy cavalry) who wore breast plates and helmets. Jul 2 at 8:31
  • Most answerers understandably refer to NHL only. In international hockey the shift may have happened earlier but not by much. My recollection is not rock solid, but I remember the world championships from the 70s, and then most if not all the players were wearing helmets. Goalies were split between helmets and masks. But I read a book covering WCs from 1965 (IIRC) and in the action photos you see a lot of players without. Including a number of goalies! As others explained, the game has speeded up, and also the equipment has improved, and the "culture" has changed. Jul 2 at 17:40
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NHL players started wearing helmets for the most part after a player, Bill Masterson, died from a check that caused him to hit his head on the ice at speed. That occurred in 1968. The mandate was about a decade later:

[I]t took another ten years before the then-President of the NHL, John Ziegler, made protective helmets mandatory for all new incoming players.

So - yes, it was really in the late 1970s before all players were wearing helmets.

From an SI piece:

The NHL made helmets mandatory four decades ago. Any player who entered the league after June 1, 1979 had to wear a helmet, but any player who signed his first pro contract before then could opt out if they signed a waiver. During the 1978-79 season, about 30 percent of NHLers didn’t wear a helmet. Ten years later, though, and you could count on both hands how many helmetless players were left in the league.

Craig McTavish was the last player to not wear a helmet, who left the league after the 1996-1997 season!


Unrelated note: please do wear a bike helmet! Nearly 1000 people die annually from bicycle injuries. Most of those are from head injuries - and of those who died, 97% were not wearing a helmet!

For the statistically inclined: a study in 2006 showed a 51% reduction in Traumatic Brain Injuries and a 44% reduction in mortality in helmeted riders.

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  • 4
    Do not mix statistics. Yes, 97% of the cyclist dead in NYC were not wearing a helmet and 92% of them were involved in a crash with a motor vehicle, 32% with a heavy motorvehicle. bikeitalia.it/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/… enjoy the helmet, especially as a pedestrian (100% of them were not wearing a helmet!)
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 1 at 7:31
  • 3
    The bike-helmet stats remain incomplete - unless you know what percentage of all cyclists were wearing helmets, your quoted numbers have no meaning. Further, unless you compare only head-injury-caused deaths and compare with cases where there was force applied to the helmet , you have no valid comparison. Jul 1 at 11:14
  • If this were an answer about bike statistics I'd have done a better job... but it's not, just a side note to a hockey answer. :)
    – Joe
    Jul 1 at 13:51
  • 1
    Better statistic added for those who are interested.
    – Joe
    Jul 1 at 13:55
  • 1
    @DarrelHoffman do you have data for that? Ever since the "third man in" penalty and the "leaving the bench" penalty went into place, the common group brawls of the 50s and 60s and 70s disappeared. Most fights now are practically scripted, with the 'designated tough guy' from each team squaring off. Jul 2 at 11:53
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Other answers cover a lot of ground, but I wanted to note that the game today is different than the game in the helmetless era. Consider:

  • Bernie Geoffrion is given credit for inventing the slapshot, and his playing career was from 1950-1968. Slapshots are much faster than other shots.
  • Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita are credited with curving the blades on their sticks in the 1960s, something that enabled harder and more unpredictable shooting.
  • Blocked shots weren't a tracked statistic until 2005. Better protection has enabled it to be a viable option.
  • Sticks used to be solid wood, but now are flexible composites that produce harder shots.
  • Goaltenders used to play standing up, with the idea that their face would stay above the crossbar.

It was dangerous to play without a helmet, but not as dangerous as it would to play without a helmet in the modern era.

3
  • Not sure I totally buy the arguments here. Not that there's not some truth, but - how much is a helmet protecting against shots? Mostly it's protecting against falls to the ice at speed, or head-to-head contact. Pucks don't usually come up to head height, and I'm not sure helmets would even help all that much against a 100mph slapshot...
    – Joe
    Jul 2 at 13:18
  • and rebounds off of the dasher boards, glass, etc.
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 2 at 14:57
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    @Joe I see what you're saying. But I think all of the bullets point to the reality that 1) the game was different (slower) and 2) the players would have played like they knew they weren't wearing helmets. Feel free to review the list of active players who died - there really aren't a lot of examples of people who died because of things that happened on the ice.
    – Brendan
    Jul 2 at 15:45
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Yes, and it's not because they were especially stupid. People even a couple generations ago were dramatically less risk-averse than today. They accepted a certain risk of injury as part of playing professional sports, and they didn't consider the risk of a head injury as being particularly high (until, as Joe mentions, one incident caused a shift in perception). Taking special precaution against it was indeed seen as a bit silly. As you say in the question, when major consequences are rare enough, most people are happy to believe that it will never happen to them.

As quoted in the SI article Joe linked, players felt that helmets reduced their field of vision, and so their situational awareness. What's more, the "sissy" argument actually holds a bit of water in competitive sports. If helmets are optional, if you're wearing a helmet and most players aren't, that signals to the competition that you're more concerned for the safety of your head than most people are... which will probably inspire them to threaten your head (as much as they can get away with) in order to mess with you, and they'll have less reservation about doing so because you have protection (again, from the SI article, Greg Smyth felt that "players might have been a bit more tentative" about attacking him during the games when he went helmetless, and Brad Marsh recalls that he received a lot more "dirty shots, elbows, high sticks, hits from behind" during the half-season of his career that he did wear a helmet). If, besides considering it unnecessary, players think that wearing a helmet will actually reduce their effectiveness, then that's going to put a drag on voluntary adoption.

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  • d/v for quoting that punk Marsh.... j/k, sorta
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 2 at 14:52

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