We take helmets for granted in the NHL today, but older hockey fans remember when they rarely saw them around the league. George Owen of the Boston Bruins was the first player to wear a helmet when he donned it in 1928-29. Russell “Barney” Stanley, a prominent player and coach, offered a version of a league helmet at the NHL yearly meeting but was turned down.
However, a pivotal incident changed the conversation. On December 12, 1933, Eddie Shore of the Bruins responded to a trip from King Clancy of the Toronto Maple Leafs by hitting the Leafs’ Ace Bailey. Bailey fell backward and hit his head on the ice with such force that many believed he was going to die. It ended his career, although he lived many years after the incident.
When the Bruins faced the Ottawa Senators shortly after that, the majority of the players sported a new helmet. Art Ross, a team executive, came up with the design. It didn’t last, however. Most players abandoned the equipment except for Eddie Shore, who kept wearing a helmet for the duration of his time in the league.
The Leafs organization ordered their players to wear helmets in the 1930s. Most players disliked them and played without them despite the team ruling. From the 1940s through the 1960s, only a few players wore them regularly.
Players began reevaluating helmets after Bill Masterson suffered a fatal brain injury in 1968. They became more popular through the 1970s, and by the end of the decade, 70 percent of professionals played with helmets on a regular basis. Beginning in 1979, the league required new players to wear helmets. Players already in the league before the ruling could continue to play without one if they signed a waiver. The last holdout for a bare head was Craig MacTavish of the St. Louis Blues, who ended his career in 1996-97.
After helmets became commonplace, visors and face shields also grew in popularity. In 2013, the NHL required all players to wear visors, unless a player had at least 25 games in the league. Today, almost 90 percent of players in the NHL wear a visor, and many other professional and amateur leagues require them.
Visors have critics, however. Hockey commentator Don Cherry says they make players feel tougher than they are. As a result, they are more likely to get into more fights than they would without visors.
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