Chicago Blackhawks Bobby Hull flashes a toothless smile in the dressing room after scoring his 50th goal of the 1962 NHL season in the final regular season game.
Not that long ago, hockey players in the National Hockey League (NHL) were not required or expected to wear helmets. I have come across no documented discussion of the mandatory use of helmets in hockey until Toronto’s King Clancy tripped Boston’s Eddie Shore on December 12, 1933. In retaliation for being tripped, Shore hit Ace Bailey from behind causing Bailey to hit his head on the ice so hard that a priest at the game administered last rites to Bailey. While Bailey lived thankfully, his playing days were over, like so many before and regrettably after him.
While the mandated use of helmets debate meandered along – at glacial speed I would have to say – pictures of the bloody face of Bobby Hull after a fight and the smiling, toothless grin of Bobby Clarke caused by years of playing “our game”, had become folklore and legendary within hockey circles. Simply put, generations of Canadian kids (including me!) grew up idolizing pictures like these ones and eagerly looking forward to the day that they too could be the next Bobby Hull or Clarke. For most, pictures like these were all too common and simply categorized (but not regrettably) as being part of “our game”.
In the face of mounting evidence of various head and face-related injuries, including the in-game death of Bill Masterson in 1968, the NHL finally mandated the use of helmets in August of 1979. The mandatory use of helmets was a monumental development for modern hockey. So difficult this issue was in the face of indisputable evidence that the new helmet law had to have a “grandfathering clause” – the type of provision more familiar in legislative drafting circles – provided all such players signed a liability waiver. With the retirement of Craig MacTavish from the NHL in 1997, the last of the helmet-less warriors had finally left the game.
After the use of helmets was mandated, many NHL players began to voluntarily wear half-visors to mitigate against the clear and undeniable risks associated with serious eye injuries. Notwithstanding the use of half-visors, errant pucks, sticks and even the odd elbow were still causing serious eye–related injuries. The loss of teeth, broken noses, broken jaws and eye injuries (including permanent loss of vision) unfortunately continued to be quite normal and in fact continued to be considered part of “our game” – although over time this thankfully began to be viewed with growing regret.
Growing up in the era of the “Broad Street Bullies”, otherwise officially known as the Philadelphia Flyers, the mandating of helmets by the NHL was the first step toward taking player safety more seriously, however, this governor wanted “our game” to be better and safer for our players by mandating full facial protection too.
As we all know and as a matter of fundamental safety, young kids in Canada have long been required to wear not only helmets, but full face-masks too (except at the professional and junior levels, where half-visors are generally still the norm). For me, this half-visor thing was never fully understandable and was filled with irony, but then again I was a goalie and we see “our game” slightly differently. The main irony to me centred around the goal of many of our players to graduate from our program to play hockey at the university level within a reputable NCAA ice hockey program, where full facial protection (in addition to helmets!) is required by all players, without exception.
After our club experienced a spate of serious injuries two play-offs ago, which included but was not limited to a cracked orbital bone, some broken jaws, countless loss of teeth, hundreds (if not thousands) of stitches to faces, nearly a severed eyelid and serious cuts to tongues, this governor finally said he had seen enough.
The reality was that these injuries were costing our medical system a lot of money (the exact amount is unknown), taxing our training staff, causing parent upset, disappointment and in some cases even anger, taking our boys away from school and removing them from the ice for extended periods of time – time that was needed to develop and to allow them opportunities to showcase their skills so they could move on to higher levels of play, including pursuing post-secondary education as well as playing university hockey.
It is worth noting as well that the aggregated magnitude of the games lost to injury adversely impacted the team’s play and limited its ability to compete and move on in the playoffs.
Since becoming Governor of the Cobourg Cougars, one of our key values has always been predicated upon “leading”, rather than “following”. We are leaders in player safety. In this regard, while sitting on the Board of Directors of the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) as the single appointee of the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL), this governor took a leadership role in having the OHA – the oldest hockey association in the world – undertake a critical review of its insurance requirements in the area of player safety.
Historically, the maximum amount of coverage made available to players in Canada for loss of teeth and the tesumtant dental work was limited to $2,500 under Hockey Canada’s blanket insurance policy. As you can appreciate, some of the injuries noted above fell far outside of the insurance provisions and often ended up costing families in excess of $35,000 per incident. Following this detailed review, and with strong urging from your Cobourg Cougars, the OHA ultimately extended the insurance coverage up to a maximum of $25,000 per injury. This governor did not stop there though.
At the end of the 2015 playoffs, a detailed survey within the Cougars’ organization involving current and former players, parents of players, staff members, volunteers and front office administrators was commissioned to help this governor understand the continued use of half-visors versus the mandated use of full facial protection. Nearly 150 responses were generated. While I was struck by the reluctance of many to move toward the mandated use of full facial protection, I was secretly encouraged by the fact that a simple majority of players and an overwhelming majority of non-players wanted full facial protection. That being said though, I was extremely disappointed to see that many players – some parents, coaches and hockey administrators too – still preferred the half-visor over mandated full facial protection.
As many people who are familiar with me know, I spent several months trying to digest the survey and to reconcile how “our game” could continue to be played with half-visors. While sitting on the board of the OHA, a young man playing in the Junior B league of the OHA suffered a career ending eye injury that saw him lose the vision from one of his eyes entirely. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
At a board of governors meeting of the OJHL in 2016, this governor on behalf of the Cobourg Cougars initiated a motion requiring all players to wear full facial protection commencing with the 2017–2018 hockey season. The motion was passed by the OJHL and set in motion the movement and passage of a similar motion at the OHA Board of Directors table.
While there is no denying that winning is very important to the Cobourg Cougars, player safety and making a difference to “our game” is equally important within the context of your club. I am happy to report that to this point in time in the 2017–2018 hockey season that not a single Cobourg Cougar has suffered a facial injury, has received a single facial stitch or has missed a single game due to facial injury.
Hockey is a great game. While we are proud of our contributions to “our game”, we are working hard to make a difference day in and day out and to leave the game of hockey in a better place than we inherited.
Yours in hockey,
Governor, Cobourg Cougars
2017 RBC Cup Champions