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When helmets were a rarity

Since the early 1980s, helmets have been mandatory for incoming NHL players.  Given the speed and physicality of the game now, no one would even think of playing without a helmet but back when I started watching hockey, the mindset was very different.

In the 1950s, you really stood out if you wore a helmet, even for a short period of time.  I don’t know if there was a single player who always wore a helmet in the ‘50s, but I was pretty young so I may not be remembering accurately.

I do know that, in the 1960s, a few guys were wearing a helmet, sometimes just for a short period of time (probably after they had suffered a serious cut or minor head injury).

Quite a while back I posted a piece on Gordie Howe wearing a helmet (click on the link to see the story).  Now, Howe played in the NHL for 25 years and a helmet is not something you associate with the rugged Howe, who epitomized the physical, nasty “power forward” before that term was even created.  But in the very early ‘60s, Howe did wear a helmet for a short while.  I assume he had suffered some kind of injury which necessitated wearing one.  (I also wonder if he wore one after he came back from a very serious head injury suffered in the playoffs against Toronto in the early 1950s.  Someone who follows this site and is an old-time fan may well remember.)

Red Kelly (see gthe great old photo above of Kelly in action with the Leafs against Chicago and goalie Glenn Hall near the end of the 1962-'63 season- Kelly is wearing a white helmet) wore a helmet off and on throughout his years in Toronto.  I’m not certain if he wore one with his original team, the Red Wings.  Kelly was, like Howe, a Hall-of-Famer, who won 8 Cups throughout his illustrious career.  He was also known for his gentlemanly play and won the Lady Byng on at least one occasion, maybe more.  I don't believe he was wearing a helmet the night he set up the first goal in Game 6 of the 1967 Cup finals.  That was his last NHL game.

The guy who I remember most prominently as a long-time NHL’er who had to wear a helmet was Boston Bruin and later Minnesota North Star forward Charlie Burns.  I don’t know the entire story, but I do remember reading as a child that Burns (see photo at left from the late 1950s) had a metal plate inserted in his head and could only play with a thick protective helmet—which he did for the remainder of his fine career, which I think lasted into the early 1970s.

Red Berenson came out of U.S. college hockey and started his career in the mid-1960s with the Montreal Canadiens.  I believe he wore a helmet from the very beginning of his NHL career, which later took him to St. Louis, Detroit and back to the Blues, where he was best known and achieved his greatest success.

There were a number of players who started their careers without a helmet and became what we might call “early adapters”.  The guys I remember who fit that category include Bobby Rousseau and Stan Mikita.  Rousseau was a great little player, a fine skater with a big-time shot for the Canadiens.  Mikita was so smart, a great passer and in his first seven or eight years in the league was also a real nasty piece of work with his stick, even though he was a fairly small guy.  But he mended his way in about 1967 and became a Lady Byng winner and switched to the helmet at about the same time.

Expansion seemed to trigger a trend toward helmets, and the tragic death of North Star forward Bill Masterton (he hit his head on the ice during a game and never fully recovered) also, I’m sure, influenced players wanting extra protection.

The game, by the 1970s, was getting much faster.  Players were getting bigger and certain teams, especially the “Big Bad Bruins” and the memorable “Broad Street Bullies” in Philadelphia ushered in not only dirty play (combined, I grant you, with a lot of skill, in both cases) but an even  greater recognition that helmets could at least help prevent serious injuries.

More players could really shoot the puck hard, way more than in the 1950s and '60s and there was just a building recognition that it made sense to protect yourself.  In Toronto, Paul Henderson wore a helmet pretty much from the time he joined the Leafs in the big Frank Mahovlich trade in the winter of 1968.  Ron Ellis started wearing a helmet on a regular basis in the early ‘70s, though he did wear one on occasion before.  Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom came over from Sweden to play in the NHL and had always worn helmets in Europe.  They continued to do so in the NHL.

Even rugged Darryl Sittler, the legendary Leaf captain,  started wearing a helmet by the late 1970s, as did Montreal whirlwind Bobby Gainey a bit later in the 1980s, after playing for probably a decade without.

I’m trying to think who the last “hold outs” were.  Brad Marsh (who played a bit with the Leafs toward the end of his solid NHL career) , it seems to me, never wore one.  (Players who came up to the NHL before 1979, I think it was, didn’t have to wear one if they didn’t want to.)  I’m sure there were others, but I just can’t recall right now off the top of my head.

Sometimes I wish the game wasn’t so fast and so dangerous and guys could go back to playing without a helmet and still feel—and be—safe from serious injury.  But those days are long gone.


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