Report by researchers finds serious flaws in hockey helmets

Norwich hockey players put a lot of faith in their helmets to protect against concussions. A report from Virginia Tech scored most helmets poorly on accomplishing that job.

Norwich hockey players put a lot of faith in their helmets to protect against concussions. A report from Virginia Tech scored most helmets poorly on accomplishing that job. Photo by Darwin Carozza

 According to a recent independent study conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech, more than a quarter of all hockey helmets on the market are considered unsafe. 

In 2011, Virginia Tech did a similar study on football helmets. The ratings were shocking and caused the companies to do an overhaul on their products to make them safer, while one company even went out of business. 

“After looking at this study, it is kind of scary and eye-opening to know that a lot of teams I have played for in the past and even including this team, issue helmets with a zero-star rating,” said Tyler Piacentini, a forward on the team and a senior communication major from South Weymouth, Mass.

At Virginia Tech, the helmets were tested on a five-star rating, five being the highest and safest and one being the lowest. Of the 32 helmets that are available for purchase, nine failed to earn a single star. The highest-rated helmet available was a helmet made by Warrior Hockey which earned three stars, while the rest either earned one or two stars. Before the test just one helmet received five stars; soon after the results came out, 12 redesigned helmets were given a grade of five stars. 

Players wearing helmets that are one star and under risk incurring at least six concussions per season, and in some cases, more than eight, according to Virginia Tech. 

“I have had two concussions since being here in my three years at Norwich, and I have had to changed helmets three times, trying to find the safest one possible so I don’t have to miss playing time,” said William Pelletier, 22, a senior forward who is a business major from Levis, Quebec.

“Concussions are one of the most dangerous injuries out there. If a player were to continue to play they run the risk of getting second impact syndrome. This has a 50 percent mortality rate and there is no real way to treat it. Almost everyone who gets second impact syndrome either dies or gets brain damage,” noted Zoe Walsh, who is a medical student at the University of Vermont who follows hockey. 

Each concussion is, in effect, a mild traumatic brain injury. Multiple concussions can lead to more brain damage. Recently National Football League players have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression and dementia. 

These symptoms can appear months or years after the trauma. The hockey community has seen a similar concern being raised, after hearing the news about three professional hockey players who committed suicide in the summer of 2011. After the autopsy, it was determined that all three of these players were suffering from CTE. 

Recently, there has been a lawsuit filed by former hockey players who allege that they have experienced long-term neurological problems stemming from concussions that they sustained while playing for the NHL. The suit also claims the league failed to inform players about the dangers of concussions and the link between head injuries and long-term cognitive issues and neurodegenerative disorders. 

“Only in the past five years has the CTE topic come to life, it really makes you think about your safety when playing the game,” said Bryce Currier, a 2015 alumnus from Essex, Vt., who played defense for Norwich and is now an assistant coach on the team. “When we were younger running around smashing into each other we had no idea about the repercussions that could come of it. No one ever warned us about the dangers of CTE.”

In the National Hockey League, helmets were only mandatory to wear since the rule passed in 1970-71 season; the last player to play in the NHL without a helmet was Craig MacTavish, who played his final game during the 1996–1997 season for the St. Louis Blues.

Since the development of helmets, players may have become more aggressive and reckless with contact which has caused the concussion rate to rise. Before then players not wearing helmets, couldn’t be as aggressive because they had to protect their head. “Helmets only protect against skull fractures, but when the players wear helmets they feel safer so the player hits harder and uses their heads more.” said Carolyn Cutler, a doctor at UCLA Medical Center, from Duxbury Mass.

To make the game safer and limit the number of concussions, the NHL made some significant rule changes. For the start of the 2010 season, the NHL eliminated checks to the head defined as a “lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.” Such contact will now be subject to a five-minute major penalty and automatic game misconduct, as well as possible supplemental discipline if deemed appropriate by the NHL. 

Hopefully, the new research about concussions and the new rule changes in place will eliminate the occurrence of concussions in a game. “As long as the NHL is open and willingly to make changes to the game to create a safer atmosphere for the players, I don’t see why we won’t be able to figure out and stop the talk about CTE and the connection with contact sports,” said Steve Mattson, Norwich assistant men’s ice hockey coach.

 

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