April 15, 2015 3:29 pm

The sport of hockey has come a long way since its early days in 19th century Canada. From the rules to the rink, the game has evolved considerably over the years to get to where it is today. Proof of this can be seen all over the equipment the modern player uses. The 5 biggest innovations in hockey are the goaltender mask, pads, stick, gloves and skates.

1. Goaltender mask

After having his nose broken from a Howie Morenz shot, Montreal Maroons’ Clint Benedict became the first goaltender to wear a mask in an NHL game on February 20, 1930. However, it was made out of leather and did not prove to be very protective, so Benedict abandoned it after just two games. Montreal Canadians goaltending great Jacques Plante became the first goaltender to use a mask on a regular basis in the NHL in November 1959. In March of 1973, Pittsburgh Penguins Andy Brown played against St. Louis without a mask —the last appearance by a maskless goaltender in an NHL game.

2. Pads

In the early days, players protected their shins from sticks and pucks using strips of leather and felt reinforced with thin lengths of cane. The first goaltender to wear leg pads was George Merritt of the Winnipeg Victorias in the 1896 Stanley Cup challenge game against Montreal. Over time, knee, shoulder, back, forearm and elbow pads were incorporated consisting of animal hair and other such materials. Later on, pads began to be produced from plastic and fiberglass with a soft covering for added safety.

3. Stick

Safety became of great concern when the butt end of the hockey stick started causing eye injuries among players in the 1950s. Harry Doughty of Walkerton, Ontario developed the “Doughty Safety Grip,” a piece of rubber, two inches in length, which attached to the end of the stick. One of the game’s all-time greats, Gordie Howe, was a keen supporter of the new piece of safety equipment. Howe called the grip one of the greatest developments in hockey history. He said: “I received a severe head injury in the Stanley Cup Playoffs a few years ago, which nearly ended my career. If there had been such a safety grip at that time, I doubt very much if my injury would have occurred.” Later on, fiberglass blades were introduced to the stick and the NHL approved the use of aluminum shaft sticks in League play. Composite sticks made their first appearance in the NHL in 1994.

4. Gloves

In the beginning, leather gloves were worn less for protection than to keep a player warm from the outdoor elements. After Montreal Maroons star Babe Siebert suffered a broken thumb, trainer Bill O’Brien put a shoehorn inside Siebert’s glove to provide reinforcement and protection to his thumb. This clever invention was the impetus for the reinforced fiber thumb which would become a staple on hockey gloves in the 1930s. The New York Rangers became the first team to wear colored gloves in red, white, and blue, which made their uniforms stand out. The Toronto Maple Leafs followed suit in 1958-59, while the Detroit Red Wings were the last team to switch from natural leather gloves to colored gloves in 1967 – 1968. Beginning in 1988, manufacturers stared producing gloves with cuffs shorter than two inches. The so-called “short-cuff” gloves, which cut-off just past the wrist instead of reaching several inches up the forearm, were used by the majority of NHL players by the early 1990s. Players felt that the smaller glove increased their ability to stickhandle and shoot. Because the short cuff gloves exposed the wrist to potential injury, players began to attach specially-molded plastic to the front part of their elbow pads to reach down to protect the lower part of the forearm. Manufacturers also began to produce longer elbow pads at this time.

5. Skates

Around 1961, CCM introduced the Prolite skate with the “Pro Guard”— a hard plastic cover on the heel of the skate blade. The new skate featured armor plate nylon rather than the bronze mesh that was formerly employed. For the first time, tendon protection became a focal point of the boot. The issue of durability was addressed with the addition of a tough, premium grade kangaroo leather.

Gone are the days when hockey would be played without a helmet or pads. Players quickly caught on that the rough, demanding nature of the sport required equipment that was just as rugged. Thanks to the inventors and other creative minds of hockey, it is now a sport that can be enjoyed with much less risk for personal safety.

Written by Dino Juklo

Categorized in: