CBC MARKETPLACE: HEALTH » HOCKEY
How safe is that hockey helmet?
11, 2000 | Producer: Richard Wright; Researcher: James Dunne
concussions, leading to permanent disability, are a growing
It's our national sport, but some claim it's a national disgrace.
They say too many hockey players are taking too many blows
to the head.
When it happens to the pros, it makes the news. But it also
happens to amateurs. Old-timers trying to keep fit are at
risk, and so are youngsters just learning the game. Their
injuries may not make headlines and there may be no reliable
statistics, but most people who know the game now agree: multiple
concussions, leading to permanent disability, are a growing
problem in the last decade.
"You can withstand the first blow or the second blow,
but let's just say a third blow can render you with a permanent
deficit," says neurologist Dr. Charles Tator. "This is really
new knowledge that comes to a sport like hockey."
A third blow can render you with a permanent
deficit," says neurologist Dr. Charles Tator
For Dan Nicoletti that new knowledge came too late, with
his fourth head injury in one season. "I remember shaking
on the way to the dressing room," he recalls. "I just did
not feel good. All those feelings of the first three concussions
were coming back to me, but two and three times more. I'm
starting to shake a little now just remembering it."
Dan's father Jim remembers all too well: "When I saw my
son in the condition he was in with tears in his eyes and
shaking - there was no need to go on. It was over at that
What was over was the promise of a pro career. Dan Nicoletti
was one of those young players with "star" written
all over him. From an early age it looked like big No. 4 could
go all the way to the NHL. But today he's forced to watch
from the stands while his younger brother wears his number.
The doctors told Dan he had to quit.
Jim and Dan Nicoletti
Dr. Charles Tator has had to do that before - tell someone
their dreams of a pro career are over. "It's a very tough
thing to do to a youngster who's built his whole dreams, and
his whole livelihood and career planning on the basis of becoming
a professional hockey player and you have to say, 'Look, your
brain has had it,'" Tator says.
It's happening more often as the problem of concussions
grows. But why?
Tator has studied the victims of multiple concussions in
hockey. He says the game has dramatically changed in the
last 10 years, but the standard for helmets hasn't kept
Pat Bishop chairs the CSA committee for hockey equipment
"All the players I have seen who have suffered from repeated
minor concussion have been wearing helmets approved by CSA
or one of the other bodies that provides that standard," Tator
says. "That would indicate to me that our standards are too
The only standard that matters in Canada is written by the
Canadian Standards Association.
The heart of the CSA standard for helmets is a drop test
to find out how they stand up to an impact. To measure that,
the standard calls for a drop of less than a metre. Pat Bishop
chairs the CSA committee for hockey equipment, and says that's
as tough as the test needs to be.
"I haven't seen any evidence that the equipment certified
by CSA for use in ice hockey is inferior," Bishop says.
We took the helmets to a leading expert
on helmet safety
So who's right? Marketplace wanted to see for ourselves.
We got an old-timers team to give up some of their helmets.
We collected helmets from young players too. And we also purchased
some second-hand helmets and some brand new helmets right
off the shelf.
Marketplace took the helmets to a leading expert
on helmet safety at the Southern Impact Research Centre in
We wanted two tests. First, we wanted to know how the Canadian
hockey helmet standard measures up to standards for other
sports helmets. And second, we wanted to know how helmet safety
is affected by the repeated use of the helmet and by the passage
How do hockey helmets measure up to the standard for other
helmets like bike helmets or skateboard helmets?
Dave Halstead believes our CSA hockey helmet
standard is not good enough
Dave Halstead, head of the research centre, says: "significantly
He believes our CSA hockey helmet standard is not good enough.
"The standard does not require enough of the helmet," says
Halstead, who grew up in up-state New York playing hockey
as a youngster. He knows about helmets. Halstead's tested
helmets for all kinds of sports for 20 years. He's on the
committee that sets the standard for hockey helmets in the
U.S., and on the international committee for hockey helmet
And he's seen helmet technology improve. He's seen helmet
materials improve, and standards for other helmets get tougher
-- but not the standard for hockey helmets.
Halstead compares hockey to field lacrosse. He argues the
two games are very similar, and that hockey helmets should
be just as good as lacrosse helmets. But the drop test for
field lacrosse helmets is twice as high and generates three
times the impact energy as the drop test for hockey helmets.
Halstead claims hockey helmets can't measure up.
Halstead argues that
lacrosse and hockey are similar - and that hockey helmets
should be just as good as lacrosse helmets
He noted that "11 of the 16 models [Marketplace]
submitted failed to meet the lacrosse standard."
We asked Pat Bishop if it wouldn't be a good idea to beef
up the CSA standard so all hockey helmets would
have to pass the lacrosse helmet drop test.
"I don't know," he responded. "I don't know the answer to
We put the same question to Blaine Hoshizaki. He's
still an active player in the game, and also vice president
of CCM, the largest manufacturer of hockey equipment in the
world. Hoshizaki says tinkering with the current helmet design
could be a mistake.
Blaine Hoshizaki says
a helmet built to withstand a greater impact would be
too heavy and might cause whiplash
"If you ignore the other elements of safety in a helmet,
or protection in a helmet, to optimize or make one element
perform extremely high, you run the risk of increasing injuries,"
And he adds that a helmet built to withstand a greater impact
would be too heavy and might cause whiplash. "That's the challenge
you have," Hoshizaki says.
But Dave Halstead disagrees: "I believe that you could make
very much the same style in the same weight or lighter with
performance significantly better than they currently have...
It's not so simple to do, but it is do-able."
The Nicolettis aren't happy that the hockey helmet standard
hasn't changed in a decade. "Unacceptable," says Jim. "It
should have been looked at a long time ago.
The results of Marketplace's second test are even
more disturbing. We tested other used helmets which range
in age from a couple of years old to many years old, and are
typical of what many Canadian hockey players wear. This time
we didn't use the lacrosse standard.
Marketplace tested the
helmets against the CSA standard for hockey helmets, the
standard to which they were built. All five failed to
meet the CSA standard
We tested them against the CSA standard for hockey helmets,
the standard to which they were built. All failed that test.
Of the five sent to the research centre, five failed to meet
the CSA standard.
The CSA's Pat Bishop says he wouldn't send a player out
on the ice with a helmet that doesn't carry the CSA stamp.
We told him that Marketplace tested other helmets
used helmets, and not one of those helmets met the CSA standard.
"I do know this - that if they had the CSA standard certification
on them, then at some point they were CSA-approved," Bishop
says. "We are concerned, though, about ageing. We are concerned
about how long a helmet should last."
Marketplace pointed out that old helmets could be re-certified
according to the lacrosse helmet standard. So why not require
hockey helmets to be re-certified every three or four years?
"I'm not sure re-certification is the issue," Bishop
says. "I think that longevity is the issue. And it may
be appropriate to suggest that a product should only have a
shelf life of so many years."
'We are concerned about
how long a helmet should last,' says Pat Bishop
Who would have that authority? The CSA? Bishop says that
he's not sure "that it's the CSA mandate, to be quite honest
While the CSA and the manufacturers sort out who's responsible
for improving hockey helmet safety, Tator says he expects
change to come from the ice up: "I think the players will
demand it, that the players themselves will say 'I'm not going
to play without better protection'."
Dan Nicoletti is now a coach, in charge of nine- and 10-year-olds.
What does he tell them about helmet safety?
"Whatever knowledge I've gained through my experience I'm
trying to give to them," he says. "Hopefully I'm making it
safer for them. They're out there to have fun and they should
be able to do that without being hurt."
helmet test results »