Why Don’t Hockey Players Wear Full Face Shields – NHL Rule

Posted on April 14, 2024 by Dan Kent
hockey shield

With ice hockey being one of the most physical games in the world, it just made sense that all leagues eventually introduced mandatory certified head gear. In fact, hockey is arguably the sport with the most protective gear for their players.

There's no way to play organized minor and pro hockey unless your head and upper facial area are always adequately protected. This is to prevent things like concussions and facial injuries.

So why do all NHL players wear a helmet or visor combo, not a full-face cage? Could they wear one if they wanted to?

Are NHL players allowed to wear full face masks?

No, they are not, barring special circumstances. NHL rules state that all players other than the goaltender must wear a visor-style protector rather than a cage. Most professional hockey leagues mandate their players wear visors. At the same time, the amateur National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in North America forces players to wear complete face protection, allowing them to choose a wire cage. 

When can an NHL player wear full-face shields?

Visor and cage picture

There are certain exceptions to the NHL rule. For instance, if a player suffers from a facial injury, it's not uncommon for him to wear a full combination cage/visor style of a helmet to protect the affected area. This is often the case for cheekbone, jaw, nose and eye injuries.

Most NHL trainers can design and assemble this hybrid type of head protector, which could feature a partial or complete wire cage.

Why do NHL players wear half visors?

Visors were made mandatory by the American Hockey League (AHL) in 2006/07, while the NHL followed suit in 2013/14 with its variation of the rule. The rule was implemented to prevent injuries, some career-ending, to the eyes and facial area.

All NHL players must wear a helmet with a clear, impact-resistant polycarbonate visor or shield attached to the front, which typically protects the eyes and reaches as far down as the nose.

However, there is an exception to the rule for those in the league before it was implemented.

Rule 9.7 states that all players starting with the 2013/14 campaign who had played fewer than 25 NHL games must wear a visor. This means several players still compete in the league without wearing a visor since they had more than 25 games of experience when the rule was introduced.

The list is getting relatively thin as more and more players retire. However, you'll still see players like Milan Lucic and Zack Kassian playing without visors, utilizing the grandfathered rule.

Wire Cages vs Visors

A wire cage face protector is also attached to the front of the helmet. It is typically made of a composite mesh or metal material. A cage offers more protection than a visor/shield since it covers the entire face down to the chin.

bauery-hockey-cage-combo

Cage

bauer-helmet-visor

Visor

The cage consists of several metal bars designed to leave enough space between the eyes to ensure they don't inhibit a player's vision. However, the wire bars are constructed close enough to each other to protect a player's face from errant pucks and sticks.

There are also various hybrid-style full-face masks on the market, consisting of a visor on the top and a cage on the bottom. In addition, full visors are also available, which cover the entire face and chin and are made of transparent polycarbonate material (known as a fishbowl).

Visors have a wider field of vision but are prone to fogging and reduced visibility. Cages are heavier (aluminum cages are more expensive but much lighter) and offer full face protection. 

Although they reduce the risk of injury, players rarely like a full shield due to its limited vision and comfort, as sprays can be applied to the visor to eliminate the fog issue.

Most Leagues Mandate Cages

While the NHL mandates just half-face coverage with a visor, most amateur, high school, and college hockey players wear full facial protection.

Some leagues force players to wear wire cages, while others allow players to choose a cage, a full visor or a hybrid-style protector.

In most female hockey leagues, full cages are a requirement. You'll often only see visors used in junior hockey when the player is over 18 years of age and in professional level men's hockey. Women's hockey, both professional and amateur, does not use visors.

When did helmets become mandatory in the NHL?

Of course, players can't wear a visor without a helmet, and the NHL allowed players to compete without a helmet until August 1979. League President John Ziegler then announced that all players who signed a contract after June 1979 had to wear one.

Players who had inked a deal before June 1979 were allowed to play without a helmet if they wished but had to sign a waiver with the league to do so.

Who was the last NHL player to play without a helmet?

In 1996/97, Craig MacTavish of the St. Louis Blues was officially the last NHL player to play without a helmet. The league also made helmets mandatory for all on-ice officials in 1988.

Why Facial Protection was Introduced

The NHL and AHL introduced facial coverage to protect the eye area. At the same time, amateur and minor leagues brought it in to protect the entire face. There had been several serious eye and facial injuries in the NHL before the visor was introduced. However, players still suffer injuries to other facial areas while wearing them – such as missing teeth. Tooth loss is so prevalent in hockey that most teams have a full-time dentist!

Many of these injuries are caused by sticks and pucks as they strike players in the lower face region below the visor. In addition, sticks and pucks can still cause damage by going underneath a visor. Below is a video highlighting an eye injury that effectively ended the career of Chris Pronger, one of the best defenseman to ever play in the NHL.

The NHL has come a long way regarding protective equipment. It wasn't long ago when skaters and even goalies wore no head protection. Imagine being a goalkeeper and facing a shot from a player without a mask on. It seems terrifying to imagine with how fast shots are today, but it did exist.

The league has yet to make a full facemask mandatory – with no foreseeable plans to do so.

Since paying fans like to instantly recognize their favorite players and the league is in business to make money, it's highly unlikely wire cages will be worn in the future. 

Read more about the dangers of hockey.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

Looking for more hockey content? Have a look at these articles