September 28, 2012

From NEHJ: Using their heads

By Jesse Connolly

It was a different time and practically a different game, but throughout most of the NHL’s first 50 years of existence, an alarming stigma toward helmets was prevalent throughout the league. Most players simply had no interest in wearing them. Oftentimes those who did in the early days were ridiculed, as if wearing a helmet were some symbol of weakness. 

Now a pioneer in making the sport safer, NHL legend Mark Messier sports The Messier Project's M11 helmet at the Winter Classic Alumni Game in January. (Getty Images)

Those who still scoffed at the notion of donning a lid got a major wakeup call in 1968, when Minnesota North Stars rookie forward Bill Masterton was sent hard to the ice on a big hit and suffered what proved to be a fatal brain injury. Eleven years later, league president John Ziegler mandated helmets.

“In 1979, the year I came in, they grandfathered all the current players and they could make their own choice. From ’79 on, we all had to wear helmets,” said Hall of Famer Mark Messier, who spent the first 12 years of his career with the Edmonton Oilers. “It wasn’t a problem for me. My dad was one of the only two players that wore a helmet in the Western Hockey League way back in the ’60s. I was brought up in a house that certainly encouraged wearing helmets.”

It’s almost crazy to think that, after being formed in 1917, it took the NHL 80 years to have all of its players outfitted with helmets. Craig MacTavish, who won two Stanley Cups alongside Messier in Edmonton and another with the Rangers in 1994, was the last player to not don one. He retired in 1997.

But as Messier points out, even a mere 15 years ago, the game was drastically different than it is today.

“Yeah, it’s a little different era, a different mentality,” he said of MacTavish’s days in the league. “You can never compare from era to era, so it’s just what it is. It was a time in our game that you could get away with it. I don’t think it would be quite as promising in today’s game.”

Making today’s game safer is Messier’s No. 1 mission.

In 2009, he teamed up with Cascade Sports. Thus, The Messier Project was born. The NHL’s second-leading scorer of all-time is as hands on as it gets, bringing a unique perspective to the production process to help craft a product that players will like — from the fit and look to the performance and, of course, protection.

But The Messier Project goes far beyond just designing protective gear.

“The reason why we came up with the Messier Project was we thought it was about so much more than just helmets,” said Mary-Kay Messier, Mark’s sister and the vice president of business development at Cascade Sports. “It was really about trying to create awareness and provide education on how a player can protect themselves better. Part of that was raising awareness and defining the criteria for what should go into helmet selection. For the past three decades, it’s kind of been all about the look. The broader mission was really this whole education initiative, not only to work with players but coaches and parents.”

Given the fact that the game is faster than ever before — something that coincides with the ever-growing number of concussions suffered by hockey players — no one can afford to treat selecting a helmet as an afterthought any longer.

“Fit, protection and comfort are the three most important considerations in selecting the right helmet,” said Lauren Pelletier, Bauer’s global brand manager for helmets. “First and foremost, a helmet must fit snug on the head to prevent any shifting. The helmet’s interior impact management materials should also be evaluated in the purchase decision process as they result in different levels of protection. Finally, features such as the foam liner, shell type, exterior vents and fit adjustment capabilities contribute to a player’s degree of comfort.”

Like every other piece of equipment in a hockey player’s bag, helmets have changed drastically, even in recent years.

“I’ll look at my old helmets from instructional learn-to-skate and see this white clunker of a Cooper helmet with an all-white cage and cringe,” said Mike Miccoli, a 26-year-old native of Providence, R.I., who plays in adult leagues in Andover and Peabody, Mass. “The designs themselves are sleeker and there’s been a tremendous of progress in regard to the safety features. They’re also incredibly more comfortable than they were when I was younger.”

Throughout the past decade, manufacturers and consumers such as Miccoli have wised up to the dangers of head injuries and the dire importance of players wearing top-notch protective gear.

“Head safety has been at the forefront of many conversations,” said Terry Serpa, director of product marketing at Hockey Monkey. “It’s good for people to educate themselves more about it. It’s brought helmet safety and technology to a never-before-seen level of awareness. The consumers are more aware, the brands are more aware, they’re focusing more on research and development and testing of helmets, and making improvements as a whole. Everybody’s talking about it. There’s a lot more material to learn from.” 

Mark Messier surveys the Messier Project's M11 prototype. (Photo courtesy of the Messier Project)

The hockey helmet, of course, goes beyond being designed to solely prevent concussions. Serpa has noticed more players — in non-mandatory situations — utilizing visors and cages for added protection on the ice.

Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.), who jumped from national champion at Boston College to playoff sensation for the Rangers in April, said his decision to wear a visor was a no-brainer when he made the leap to the NHL.

“I’d worn the visor in the past at World Juniors. I had no issue with it,” Kreider said. “It’s just that much safer. I didn’t even have to think twice. I had no problem wearing it in the past, so I figured, ‘Why not?’

The 51-year-old Messier, who works for the Rangers as a special assistant to the president and general manager, already has a small stable of NHL players wearing the Messier Project’s M11 or M11 Pro helmets — including Kevin Westgarth and Willie Mitchell of the Cup-winning Kings — which use a Seven Technology liner system as opposed to the traditional EPP foam liner, setting them apart from the rest of the competition.

In continuing with the contrasts, rather than relying on a trickle-down effect from the NHL, Messier has helped build the brand from the ground level up.

“We’ve had a tremendous groundswell from the youth level up and getting into the kids, the parents and the coaches. Our helmets kind of trickled in the reverse of what was the traditional way,” Messier said. “Obviously, we feel our helmet is worthy of all levels of play. It’s only a matter of time before the NHL players will trust the product enough to wear and feel good about it. Change takes time.

“We’ve been around now for three years, and I think the players understand what we’ve tried to do. And I think because of it, they know we’re for real. They’ve seen our helmets and they all have their kids in our helmets, so it’s only a matter of time.”

Don’t be surprised if that time comes soon. In June, Bauer purchased Cascade for $64 million. That means only good things for the Messier Project.

“I got into this business to try to make a difference in the game and try to protect players of all ages,” Messier said. “By teaming up with Bauer, who believes in our product and obviously we believe in what they’re trying to do for the protection of all players at every level, we’re going to be able introduce our product to a greater degree because of the horsepower they possess. I think it’s a win-win situation where we can combine technologies, ideas and brain trust and develop something that’s even better than we have currently.”

Asked if he’d consider donning the M11 Pro if approached by Messier, Kreider said he’d comply with whatever the legendary center insisted on.

“Whatever Mark — Mr. Messier — says, goes,” said Kreider, who currently uses all Bauer equipment. “You don’t say no to a guy like that. I’m only a rookie, so I’ll wear what I’m told to wear.”

While the mission to create a helmet that’s a surefire way to prevent concussions is a daunting one, Messier has no intention of taking a rest from teaching kids how vital hockey headgear is, nor does he plan on stopping until The Messier Project has perfected producing what quickly has become the most important piece of hockey equipment.

“Well I think it’s continue the education part of The Messier Project; that’s been the most important issue of all, to wake up everyone to what’s going on at all levels,” Messier said when asked what the project’s long-term goals are. “I think we’ve done a great job with that. I think a lot of people know about The Messier Project and what it stands for. And the next thing is to continue to try to develop newer and better technology so we can continue to help improve the safety of our game.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ