Ice hockey is a fast paced, high contact sport, which has been around since the late 19th century. The first ever recorded indoor ice hockey game took place on March 3, 1875 at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal, but it was much different than modern day hockey in that each team had 9 players and it was played with a wooden puck.
Aside from skates and a stick, the remainder of the equipment that we see today was non-existent. The clothing that they wore was more to protect them from the cold than anything else.
Modern day hockey players have highly sophisticated equipment which has been designed to offer maximum protection to the players, while also being flexible and light weight to give them optimal comfort.
This article will explore the evolution of hockey gear from the early days of the sport to the advanced equipment that players wear today.
Hockey Gear in the Early Days
Hockey gear in the early days of the sport was vastly different from what we see today. For example, instead of skates players attached blades to the bottom of their boots, sticks were made out of a single piece of wood and pucks were made out of wood or out of rubber balls which had the top and bottom cut off to give it a flat surface.
With regards to protective gear, players did not wear anything of significance to protect themselves from the physical dangers of the sport. The first piece of protective gear that players started wearing was make-shift shinguards in the 1880’s using strips of leather reinforced with cane or wood.
Even goaltenders, who are exposed to some of the greatest dangers with high speed shots being fired at them did not have much gear that protected them from physical injury. The first leg pads, for instance, were worn by Winnipeg Victorias goaltender George Merritt in the 1896 Stanley Cup challenge game. He used cricket pads for protection and the added confidence helped him shut out the Montreal Victorias 2-0.
Hockey Gear in the Early 1900’s
In the early 1900’s, players began taking protective gear more serious but for the most part, players had to take matters into their own hands. One of the star players in the early 1900’s, Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, is a great example of this as he is one of the first players to incorporate back and shoulder protection to his gear. He used scrap pieces of felt and stitched them into his undershirt going over the shoulders and down the back.
Another common upgrade that players made to their gear in the early 1900’s was wearing knee caps made of leather and felt. They also upgraded their gloves to include padding in them made out of felt or animal hair and some even used pieces of bamboo to reinforce their wrists.
By the 1920’s, players began attaching their makeshift shinpads and knee pads together to offer a higher degree of protection to their legs.
Hockey Gear during the 1930’s
Prior to the 1930’s it was rare to see a player wearing a helmet, and even when they did, it was not a consistent thing. That is until 1933 when Ace Bailey, a star player for the Toronto Maple Leafs, suffered a career ending head injury after colliding with Eddie Shore from Boston and severely banging his head on the ice. After this injury, Eddie Shore became the first NHL player to wear a helmet regularly. Even after this collision it was still rare to see a player wear a helmet regularly until around 1970.
Hockey gloves also went through an important transformation in the early 1930’s after Babe Siebert, star player for the Montreal Marooons, broke his thumb. His trainer had a clever idea; to fit a shoehorn into Sieberts glove for reinforcement to his thumb. This idea quickly led to the invention of the reinforced fiber thumb which became a common protection that players used in their gloves throughout the 1930’s.
Another area of protection that players started taking more serious during the 1930’s was their elbows and forearms which used to take blows regularly as they fell on the ice. Players began wearing leather elbow pads on the outside of their jerseys and also began sewing felt pads onto their undershirts to protect their forearms.
The Introduction of Goaltender Masks
Goaltender Clint Benedict was the first goalie to wear facial protection in 1930 after having his nose broken by a powerful shot. He quickly stopped wearing his leather mask after 2 games though, because it obstructed his vision.
The first goaltender to consistently wear facial protection was by Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante on November 1st 1959. While playing a game against the New York Rangers, Plante was struck in the face by a powerful shot which wounded his cheek and nose. He was quickly stitched up and returned to the ice wearing his self designed fiberglass mask which he had only previously worn during practice. His coach at the time was reluctant to let him wear the mask and spectators ridiculed him questioning his toughness.
After an 18 game winning streak people began to widely accept the face protection and it started to be worn by goalies across the league. Some goaltenders, however, opted to not wear masks all the way until March 31, 1973 which was the last time that a goaltender played without a mask.
Hockey Gear Advancements Post World War II
With the boom in the plastics and fiberglass industries after World War II, previously used leather shoulder and elbow pads began being replaced by plastic and fiberglass. These were protective for the player wearing them, however, they soon proved to be dangerous for opposing players.
In 1950, NHL president Clarence Campbell stated that although this new protection is good for the wearer of it, the true danger rests on the opponent who gets struck by this heavy armour. As a result, he emphasized the necessity to re-examine protective gear and get rid of anything that may be of danger to other players.
In the 1950-51 season a new rule was established to minimize the injuries that were resulting from elbows. It was required that all elbow and shoulder pads need to have a soft outer covering to minimize impact. There was also a new rule that gave major penalties to players who injured others with their elbows.
During the 1955-56 season a new elbow pad was made by Lippmans Tool Shop in Detroit which included a covering over the plastic made out of a soft sponge rubber and was first worn by players on the Detroit Red Wings.
New Guidelines for Hockey Gear
In June 1958, NHL president Clarence Campbell announced a new protocol for equipment manufacturers that all new equipment must first be approved by the NHL rules committee to ensure that the equipment is safe for both the wearer and opponent.
In 1959, CCM began developing a new type of leg protection after Montreal Canadiens star Bernie Geoffrion severed his tendon in the back of his leg from colliding with another players skate. By 1961, CCM released their new lightweight leg protection made from the same material as shrapnel vests in the Korean War. This new shin guard wrapped around the back of the leg giving players full protection from blades and was one of the first pieces of protective gear approved by the NHL rules committee. To further protect players from tendon injuries caused by skates, CCM also designed a new skate in 1961 by placing a hard plastic cover on the heel of the skate.
In 1979 helmets finally became mandatory for all players in the NHL that signed their first contract after June 1, 1979. It was not mandatory, however, for all players that had signed their first contract prior to this date. The last player to play without a helmet was Craig MacTavish who retired in 1997.
Hockey Gear Advancements since the 1980’s
A new pant system called the Cooperall was designed in 1980 which was 80 percent lighter than previous pants worn in the NHL and offered greater protection to players. It was made out of nylon and covered from above the players knees all the way up to their lower rib cage. This system only lasted 2 years in the NHL because the material tended to rip easier and caused players to slide uncontrollably when they fell on the ice.
In 1988, a new glove with shorter cuffs was implemented which eliminated the previous wrist protection but allowed
players to have better stick handling. As a result of eliminating previous wrist protection, gear manufacturers began producing longer elbow pads which stretched down to the wrists for greater protection.
One of the latest developments in protective hockey gear was displayed at the all-star game in 2007. Reebok and the NHL introduced a new uniform system called the Rbk EDGE Uniform System. It was designed with four different fabrics that is intended to give the players maximum protection while also maintaining a lightweight and keeping them drier than ever before.
Hockey Gear Maintenance
From the beginning of the sport of Ice Hockey to the modern game, the protective gear that players wore has gone through many changes. Initially players only wore jerseys and gloves to keep them warm. Nowadays the extent of gear that must be worn by a player is sophisticated and bulky to protect them from high impacts.
This new hockey gear, as is the case with all other sports, gets dirty very quickly and entrenched with bacteria as a result of players sweating in them. It is very important to make sure that you maintain your hockey gear as clean as possible during your season to eliminate any foul odours from the bacteria that grows on it.
Due to the extensive amounts of gear required to play hockey it can be difficult to keep your gear clean on your own and highly advised to give your equipment to a professional hockey gear cleaner from time to time.