British Columbia

Want to cut concussions in the NHL? Build a better shoulder pad says SFU researcher

A mere two centimetres of foam rubber could be the difference in saving the brains of NHL players from concussions, according to a new Simon Fraser University study.

42% of concussions in the NHL are the result of a shoulder-to-head hits. A little more foam could change that

SFU researcher have discovered that 2 centimetres of padding added to shoulder pads of a player throwing a shoulder check has the potential to greatly reduce the concussion risk of a player receiving the hit. (SFU)

A mere two centimetres of foam rubber could make a big difference in saving the brains of NHL players according to a new study out of Simon Fraser University. 

The research was motivated by the fact that 42 per cent of all concussions suffered in the NHL occur as a result of shoulder-to-head hits.

Player throws a hard should-to-head check on the SFU research dummy. Shoulder pads modified with extra foam were proven to reduced the severity of the hit. 0:07

Researchers tested the force of shoulder-to-head hits generated by using players wearing stock shoulder pads versus ones modified with an extra layer of soft polyurethane foam on the outside of the shoulder cap.

"The approach we took is that hitting is part of the game, but it's problematic for brain health," said engineering science professor Stephen Robinovitch. 

"Helmets are not designed to prevent concussion ... and rule changes in the NHL to avoid targeting the head have not resulted in a decrease in concussions. So we need to find a way to make the brain safer."

The dummy's head contains a g-force detector and other instrumentation. (SFU)

For the study, 15 hockey players from the SFU men's team and other hitting leagues were asked to throw "the hardest shoulder checks they were comfortable delivering" to the head a research dummy set up to measure force and impact.

On average, the dummy registered 25 per cent less head acceleration and 12 per cent less rotational force when hit by the pads modified with the extra foam.

Those reductions in force are important because concussions result from hits or whiplash movements to the head that are strong enough to make the brain to move and hit the opposite side of the scull.

A standard hockey shoulder cap has a thin covering of rigid foam over a hard plastic shell. SFU research found that adding an additional layer of softer foam to the outside could reduce the concussion risk from shoulder-to-head hits. (CCM)

"An additional layer of softer foam has a relatively huge effect on reducing the severity of a hit," said Robinovitch.

In fact, no player in the study was able to throw a hit wearing the modified shoulder pads that created a G-force of over 60, widely thought to be near the lowest threshold of force which can leave a player concussed.

Robinovitch says he hopes to present the study to the NHL and to hockey equipment manufacturers. 

"This could be one tool in the toolbox to make the game safer."