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Today, hockey players wear a full body of protective, yet high performance equipment. No doubt, hockey equipment has changed a lot since the earliest days of the sport. But how much has it changed? How different is today’s equipment compared to that of over 100 years ago? When did players start wearing equipment such as helmets? Were early hockey players protected at all? This article explores the history of hockey equipment and how it’s changed over the years.
Hockey equipment has changed a great deal since the late 1800s. The earliest hockey players wore almost no protection and used rudimentary skates and sticks. Equipment was slowly introduced throughout the 1900s. The equipment grew from simple felt and leather coverage to protective plastic and fibreglass materials for players and goalies. Goalie masks and hockey helmets were also eventually invented and made mandatory.
What Is Hockey Equipment?
Hockey equipment is the full body of protection and performance gear that hockey players wear during a game.
“Equipment” may sound only like protection. But the word is meant to include everything from protective pieces such as the helmet, shin pads, elbow pads (and so on) to the sport’s essentials like the hockey stick and ice skates.
Today’s hockey equipment is made for an optimal combination of protection and performance. Hockey equipment should be comfortable for players to use, but it also needs to prevent serious injuries on the ice.
The equipment of today may now be taken for granted. But hockey equipment has undergone much development and many necessary changes since the earliest years of the sport.
Did the First Hockey Players Wear Equipment?
The sport of hockey has its origins in Montreal, Quebec, of the 1870s. A group of university students invented and tested out the new sport at McGill University.
These earliest hockey players wore virtually no protective equipment. The uniforms and clothing they wore was more intended to keep them warm while on the ice.
Their skates and sticks were rudimentary. The first ice hockey skates were merely boots with blades attached to the bottoms, and sticks were cut from a single piece of wood.
Shin pads were the first strictly protective equipment that some players chose to wear in the 1880s. These pads were usually made of leather or wood.
The puck was also made of wood at the time, and goalies wore little protection until around 1900. Their earliest equipment was leg pads which were adapted from wooden cricket style leg protectors.
How Did Hockey Equipment Change After 1900?
Some of the first pieces of equipment that were added after the turn of the twentieth century were padded hockey gloves, elbow pads, and shoulder pads.
Hockey gloves were originally worn more for warmth on the cold ice than for protection. But players added padding to them in the first decades of the 1900s.
The hockey glove gained a reinforced thumb in the 1930s after a star player broke his thumb. In fact, this type of injury story actually informs the invention of many pieces of hockey equipment.
In the 1920s and 1930s, hockey was becoming a more physical and dangerous sport.
Players were falling down on the ice more often, so elbow protection was also seen as a necessary addition.
Some players fashioned elbow pads on the outsides of their jerseys. Others even sewed leather or other padding onto the actual jerseys for protection.
Shoulder and midsection padding were also added by some players around the 1940s.
What Were the First Hockey Helmets?
The first players to wear helmets did so around the 1928 and 1929 seasons. One of the first helmeted players was George Owen, who may have worn a one-time football leather helmet on the ice.
Helmets were worn more often after an infamous 1933 incident involving Ace Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins. In the game, both players suffered injuries when they hit their unprotected heads on the ice.
Bailey tripped Shore, who retaliated by checking Bailey from behind. Bailey nearly died from the incident and never played in the NHL again.
The teams tried to introduce helmets to their players after the game, but they were poorly received. Shore did wear the helmet for the rest of his career after the incident, though. Helmets didn’t become more commonplace until the 1970s, and they were made mandatory in 1979.
Plastic and Fibreglass Hockey Equipment
The wider introduction of fibreglass and plastic equipment after WWII gradually eliminated much of the early leather hockey equipment.
These materials also made for sturdier and more protective gear, which lessened injuries from falls and shot blocks. Helmets were especially revolutionized by developments in material technologies.
Fibreglass was also used for hockey sticks beginning in the 1950s. It made the sticks lighter, more durable, and more affordable.
How Did Goalie Equipment Change?
The first change to goalie gear was to widen the lower half of the goalie stick, which happened in the 1910s. This was done so the goalie had a better chance of blocking the puck with the stick.
Eventually, a blocker piece was added onto the simple padded glove worn on both hands. Goalies also used to use two hands on their stick. This changed when a trapper was added to the off-hand, first in 1948, making it the catching glove that is used today.
Incredibly, hockey goalies did not wear masks for more than the first 75 years of the sport. Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens was the first goalie to do so in the NHL.
Plante introduced the goalie mask to the NHL in 1959 after he was hit in the face with a slapshot. But a women’s university league goaltender named Elizabeth Graham was actually the first to wear a goalie mask in 1927, over thirty years earlier.
It was certainly a gradual process, but over nearly 150 years of history, hockey players grew increasingly protected by equipment changes. Players began with only the necessities of skates and sticks, but, bit-by-bit, developments in padding and equipment material led to the full body of protective equipment that players wear today. Improved materials and a greater concern about safety have led to increased protection and better performance on the ice.