Ottawa researcher rethinks hockey helmet

An Ottawa research team is building a better hockey helmet, one it hopes will shield players from concussions.

New design aims to curb concussions in hockey

Sidney Crosby is sidelined with a concussion. ((Gene J. Pusker/Associated Press))

An Ottawa research team is building a better hockey helmet, one it hopes will shield players from concussions.

Blaine Hoshizaki — who holds a doctorate in physiology from the University of Illinois and used to work for the Montreal Canadiens as well as two major hockey equipment companies — is leading the research with a team of his students at the University of Ottawa's impact science lab.

Their goal is to produce a prototype of a safer helmet within a year. Hoshizaki won't disclose the details of his new helmet, but he's critical of what players are using now.

Current helmets do a good job of protecting players from catastrophic injuries like skull fractures, Hoshizaki said, but they largely fail to deal with the type of hits that cause concussions.

Most concussions occur when there is a hit to the head that turns the head at the same time, Hoshizaki said. He said various design factors make current helmets ill suited to protecting players against this type of hit, including helmet shape.

"You asked what's going to be different in the future, well there are a number of strategies that companies can take in terms of whether the helmet is different shaped," Hoshizaki said.

"It will become different shaped, I believe."

Testing with a metal fist

The testing is done by having a compressed-air powered metal fist slam into a dummy head wearing a helmet, replicating a player taking an errant elbow or puck to the head in a game.

Every dummy head is wired to sensors and filmed by slow motion cameras. The information is fed into computers that allow Hoshizaki to predict whether the head would have suffered a concussion – essentially the brain moving or jiggling within one's skull.

The solution may be to provide more stabilization to the neck, but Hoshizaki said innovation can't affect the way the game is played.

"It's very unlikely that you would have any innovations that would limit the ability to be able to look around and see where the players are and make passes," Hoshizaki said.

"If you increase equipment to where the game is no longer enjoyable or it loses its culture, than you're playing a different game."

Hockey leagues, from amateur to professional ranks, have been rocked by concussions. The NHL is currently dealing with increased pressure to make the sport safer after Sidney Crosby – arguably its best player – is sidelined with concussion symptoms.

Helmets alone not enough

Hoshizaki said he knows the league is keeping an eye on his work, but he said helmets alone won't wipe concussions from the sport.

"It's one small piece of it," he said. "Managing the behaviour and play on the ice is another important part, and education so players understand how important and serious a concussion is."

Hoshizaki said if his new helmet works, he'll aim to sell the design to a major hockey equipment manufacturer.