Today, the Future of Player Safety is Hidden in the Past

Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers . (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers . (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The future of player safety in hockey is front and center, with the unfortunate passing of former Penguin, Adam Johnson.  Johnson, a 29-year-old who passed away during a “Freak Accident”, during a game, where a collision with a player, (Matt Petgrave), caused his errant skate blade to cut Johnson’s neck.

This was so sad to hear.  Our condolences go out to the family, friends, and teammates of Johnson.

This situation got me thinking about overall player safety, where we were with it, from the Past, where we are with it, as of today, and where we are going with it, in the future.

The first thing to point out is, there is always an element of risk, in anything you do.  Period.  The risk of injury, however, dramatically increases in any collision sport.  It does not matter if it’s Football, Basketball, Baseball or Soccer, the same risk exists.

That risk of injury is further increased, when you strap on 2-sharp razor blades to the bottom of the players feet, as they do in Hockey.  Then you encourage body checking, collisions, scrums, and fighting.

Injuries have been a part of all sports from the beginning of time.  And we have all seen the evolution of equipment in todays’ game, compared to where it was, when all sports began.

So, let’s talk about Hockey and Player Safety Today.  How we should take a look back into the Past, in order to be protected in the Future.

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The Head – Helmet

The first NHL player to wear a Hockey Helmet was George Owen of the Boston Bruins, who wore a leather helmet, that he used while playing football attending Harvard University in1928.

Many players in the past never wore helmets what-so-ever.  I’m also talking about goalies here folks.  Jacques Plante became the first goalie to wear a mask on November 01.1959, after NYR Bathgate cut him open with a shot to the noggin.

Until recently, most NHL players did not wear a helmet in the Pre-Game Skate, which I simply never understood.  Owners have a payroll of $71 Million Dollars, with 23 Multi-Millionaires, skating around the ice, firing pucks all over the place, with limited structure, and you are not mandating they wear a helmet?  I understand players want choice, but Wow.

As of the 2019-2020 season, it is now mandatory for NHL players to wear a helmet during the Pre-Game Skate.

The last NHL player to wear a helmet was Craig MacTavish of the St. Louis Blues, in 1996-1997.

Today, every player wears a helmet.

The Eyes – Visor

As mentioned above, many NHL players never wore a helmet, so obviously they never had any protection for their eyes.  In the early 1970’s, University players wore a “Tear Drop” or “Cat’s Eye” cage for protection, which then led to helmets, masks, and visors.

On May 5.2013, Marc Staal of the New York Rangers, suffered a serious eye injury when he took a slap shot to the eye.

Today, NHL players must wear a visor unless they have played 25 games in the league prior to the start of the 2013/2014 season.

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The Neck – Neck Guards

With helmets and visors only recently being mandatory protection by the NHL, you can imagine how little protection there has been regarding the neck area.

The goalies were the ones wearing them sparingly.  In 1979 Boston Bruins goalie Marco Barron wore a Throat Protector, as did, recent Hall of Fame goalie, Tom Barrasso in 1983.

Back in 1989, Buffalo Sabres goalie, Clint Malarchuck was cut in the neck by an errant skate.  He survived; however, Hockey Canada made it mandatory for all players to wear neck guards shortly thereafter.

Today, given the recent Adam Johnson incident, neck guards are back in the conversation.

The Wrist – Gloves

Any exposed skin is cause for concern in a game where players have razor blades attached to them.  In the past, NHL players wore what I call, the standard sized hockey gloves.  Since 1875,  hockey players wore a glove that protected their hands, wrists, and forearms.

In 1991, hockey manufactures brought in what I call, “the shorties”, or Short Gloves.  These gloves were brought in to allow players to have more mobility and were lighter.  However, the players are now more at risk of a sliced wrist or forearm, because of this change.

Today, players can wear wrist guards and Teflon under garments for added protection.

The Feet – Skates

We all can agree that the early hockey skate was basically leather and a blade.  Not much in the way of protection.

In 1971, the ankle protector made its way into the hockey bag, as part of the players protective equipment.  It was made of leather and offered some protection, but not much.

1980: Bobby Orr #4 of the Boston Bruins . (Photo by Robert Shaver/Bruce Bennett Collection/Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images)

So back in the day (late 1960’s-early 1970’s), Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins, who is arguably the greatest player in the NHL, taped his shin pads with white hockey tape around his knee area as well as around his ankle.  The tape around the ankle was there to keep the leather part of the skate attached to the leg and so that no skate blade would be able to cut the Achillies Tendon.

I understand the value of flexibility, and extension when skating.  I understand how tape around the ankles can be somewhat restrictive.  However, I think protecting one’s Achillies tendon is extremely important.

Today, the hockey skate has much more overall protection to it.  Players can also add on a protective plastic boot, which fits directly over the skate for added protection.  This is especially important in today’s hockey, where most teams like to have their players blocking shots.

As mentioned before, players can wear protective under garments, there are also now cut resistant hockey socks, or one can add a plastic Achillies Guard for protection.


I’m not going to get to deep into this topic today, however I will say this…

Hockey is the only Major sport that allows fighting.

Every other sport kicks out any players who fights during a game.

No other sport allows a “Staged Fight” to exist during a game.

And finally, why does a player have to fight to defend himself, after delivering a clean hit, which is allowed in the rules?

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New York Rangers Record as of November 16.2023

11-2-1= 23pts

1st – in the Metropolitan Division

2nd – in Eastern Conference

3rd -Tied Overall in NHL

My View from the Cheap Seats

Section: TV     Row: PVR     Seat: The Couch

The NHL has come a long way in protecting its players since 1926.  Some of the protection, I feel, should go back to how it was.  However, we all know that it can be better.

The Future of Player Protection needs to incorporate an agreement between the Players, the Owners, and the Equipment Manufacturers, whereby the manufacturers continue to evolve making equipment lighter, but with the highest protective value available.  And for the Owners to be concerned about the overall safety of its players.

Because understand this, without players, there is no game.

Quote of the Day:

“Safety isn’t Expensive, it’s Priceless.”