Upon request, Montreal Canadiens defenseman Murray Baron takes down his two CCM brand helmets from the shelf above his locker. They are four or five years old and look it. The white home helmet is lined with a quarter inch of foam padding so brittle from drenchings in sweat that it appears petrified. The blue road helmet has a more supple but equally thin liner that Baron removed from another brand of helmet and fitted so haphazardly into the CCM that the foam is loose over one ear.
It's easy to get into Baron's helmets. It's hard to get into his head. Why? Why does Baron use a helmet that is old, poorly padded and customized to the point of being dangerous? At a time when the NHL is campaigning for standardized helmets, when the NHL Players' Association is warning members about the danger of concussions, when a promising 20-year-old like Brett Lindros of the New York Islanders has retired because of repeated concussions and a star like Pat LaFontaine of the Buffalo Sabres suffers from postconcussion syndrome, which threatens his career, why does Baron play in a helmet that is further past its prime than Saturday Night Live? Baron considers the question and says, "Comfort."
He is hardly alone. According to separate surveys by the NHL and the NHLPA, 29% of players—three of 10 skaters on every shift—wear helmets that don't meet impact standards set by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), a nonprofit organization that evaluates product safety. This should be good news, considering that a year ago 50% of players wore helmets that didn't meet the standards. However, some trainers, equipment managers and helmet manufacturers believe the NHL-NHLPA figures severely underestimate the number of unsafe helmets because of the players' rampant doctoring of the padding and the advanced age of many helmets.
Ken Hall, vice president of research and development for Karhu Canada (the sister company for Sweden-based Jofa), which produces 6% of the helmets used in the NHL, says about 60% of NHL helmets don't have their shock-attenuation properties intact. Willa Dwyer, product manager for CCM helmets, which has almost two thirds of the NHL market, estimates as many as eight in 10 players wear helmets that don't meet impact standards. Says Islanders team doctor Elliot Pellman, "Some guys are wearing helmets that are so poor you might as well put a baggy over their heads. I don't understand the logic of it."
"We've got nine players whose helmet lining is a quarter inch [instead of the five-eighths thickness of most certified helmets]," says trainer John Wharton of the Detroit Red Wings, a team on which only four of 25 players wear approved helmets. "You get better protection from a Dixie cup."
Seventeen players, including notables such as LaFontaine and Paul Kariya of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, have had concussions in the first three months of this season, thus continuing the alarming trend in 1995-96 when 70 concussions resulted in players' missing a total of 240 games. LaFontaine still suffers mood swings, depression and headaches from the concussion—the fifth of his 14-year NHL career—he suffered on Oct. 17. "I've told my wife it's like riding a bike, and a super train pulls up and takes you for a ride," he says of the lingering effects of the concussions. "For the first time in my life I feel like I have no control over what's happening to me."
Although exact figures on concussions are difficult to ascertain for seasons before 1993-94 (until then concussions were reported to the league only if a player missed at least one game), mounting statistical and anecdotal evidence has the NHL and NHLPA crawling toward a greater understanding of an injury that until recently had not been taken seriously. That's quite a change, because traditionally in hockey an injury is not an injury unless it can be splinted, scoped or sutured. Head injuries accounted for only 8% of the NHL's lost man-games last season, although Canadiens team surgeon David Mulder notes that the seriousness of concussions—traumatically induced disturbances of neurological functions—dwarf their proportion because they can have a lifelong effect. In order to reduce the number of concussions, Mulder says, "there are only two practical areas you can look at: the way the game is played and equipment."
The NHL has been studying its game, including factors like the new seamless rink glass that Calgary Flames defenseman James Patrick, who has had four concussions in 14 seasons, likens to a brick wall. But hockey is hockey. Players are bigger—on average, two inches taller and 14 pounds heavier than 25 years ago—and faster. Mass X acceleration = trouble. Hitting will always define NHL hockey, even though five years ago the league adopted rules to keep the hired help from attacking each other from behind, a move made to protect its investment.
That leaves equipment. "The Number 1 flaw in our system," NHL director of hockey operations Brian Burke says, "is helmets."
"In football there are many variables you can't control, but you can eliminate the variable of unsafe equipment because the players have to wear certified helmets," says Toronto Maple Leafs athletic therapist Chris Broadhurst. "You can't say that about hockey because all helmets don't conform. What you need to do is make them conform, and then five years later you might say, O.K., so there was no change in the number of head injuries, but at least we've eliminated the equipment variable in the equation."