- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2000

The old symbol of NHL injuries once was the smiling, gap-toothed player. Today it's the player crouched on the ice, head in hands, unaware of his surroundings because he has a concussion.

Barely a week goes by when a player does not suffer some type of concussion. On Monday it was Carolina forward Rod Brind'Amour. Two days earlier, it was Edmonton forward Boyd Devereaux. Before that, it was Philadelphia star center Eric Lindros. And before that, Vancouver defenseman Donald Brashear was injured after a vicious stick swing by Boston defenseman Marty McSorley. On and on the list goes and grows.

The rash of head injuries this season in the NHL more than 50 players have missed time this season because of concussions, many for weeks has renewed an old debate about the quality of helmets.

In a high-tech era of bulletproof vests, Kevlar and fiberglass, hockey helmets remain by far the thinnest piece of equipment on a player's body. Shin guards can withstand a 90-mph slap shot without causing serious injury. New elbow pads are so light and rigid some hockey insiders have joked they should be considered lethal weapons.

But it took years of often nasty negotiation between the NHL and the players union to mandate in 1996 the use of government-certified helmets with a least five-eighths of an inch of padding and requisite amounts of energy absorption. And even that rule had to have a grandfather clause to allow older players like Wayne Gretzky to stick with the lighter helmets they favored.

So why can't the helmet manufacturers, the league and the players union agree on a helmet that's comfortable to players, can withstand serious punishment along the boards and protect players from concussions that can debilitate them for life?

"Manufacturers have to really get together and say, 'We can design a better helmet,' " said Wally Tatomir, Carolina equipment manager. "Basically, if you look at a helmet from the mid-'70s to now, the insides have changed a little bit, but I really believe they could make it better, and they're going to have to."

NHL helmets are constructed of polyethelene plastic and lined with high-density foam padding. Manufacturers apply their own paint at the factory and discourage teams from applying additional decals because most paints and adhesives can weaken the polyethelene.

Nearly all NHL players hate helmets, particularly tight-fitting ones, because of the heat and itching they generate during a game. There is also a fashion issue. Property fitted helmets sit somewhat high on a player's head to provide better protection to the crown of the skull and will have a snug chin strap.

Gretzky, however, popularized a nearly opposite style with a very thin, open helmet that was more appropriate for straining pasta. Gretzky's helmet sat very low on his head and a loose chin strap hung even lower. Most players in the NHL, including a large number of Washington Capitals, have adopted a similar style.

CCM, the pre-eminent manufacturer of helmets used in the NHL, argues strongly it is these ill-fitting helmets, and not poor design, that are causing the rash of concussions. When McSorley struck Brashear in February, for example, Brashear's helmet began to come off before he fell and hit the ice, worsening an already gruesome injury.

"I have guys come up to me all the time and ask why we don't use one fancy material or another," said Blaine Hoshizaki, vice president of product development at Quebec-based CCM. "We did polycarbonate. We did Kevlar. But we went back with the polyethelene because it has the best characteristics for the nature of hockey.

"But there are really a number of variables involved in a concussion. You have to remember that players are much bigger today than they used to be, the game is faster, and I think, more aggressive," Hoshizaki said.

The NFL also has waged its own battle with concussions. The size and speed of the players also has outpaced the design and use of new, better helmets. The NFL's current concussion poster boy is San Francisco quarterback Steve Young, who has not retired despite four concussions since 1996.

A handful of NFL teams, most notably the 49ers, began several years ago using the ProCap, a polyurethane attachment that affixes to the top of the helmet with Velcro. The extra layer of padding reduces the impact of blows to the head by at least a third, but the vast majority of players won't use it because of the additional weight and poor aesthetics.

The only real answer to curbing concussions, equipment manufacturers say, is to regulate the style of play.

"If you really want to eliminate concussions and eliminate blows to head, eliminate the high elbows in the corners," said Stephen Murphy, global product manager for Bauer Nike Hockey, another leading manufacturer. "Hockey was played more than a century ago by 5-foot-8 guys that weighed 140 pounds on rinks 200 feet by 85 feet. Today it's still 200 feet by 85 feet, and the guys are 6-2, 220 pounds."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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