August 26, 2009
When Mark Messier was in the infancy of his Hall of Fame career, most of his peers and opponents didn't wear helmets.
"That changed in the early 70s," he recalled. "I remember going to an Oil King [Junior A] game and it was mandatory they all wear helmets. They were trying out their new helmets by lining up and hitting their heads against the boards to see if it would work."
What Messier has seen in the ensuing three decades of his hockey life isn't just a change in equipment; it's a change in philosophy among players and coaches when it comes to hitting and dangerous plays. He implicitly understands that hockey, at all levels, is a physical game; but Messier is an advocate for teaching young players proper body position, how to give and take clean hits, and respect for opponents -- bringing that education through the ranks.
At the core of his philosophy: Preventing what he believes is an epidemic in hockey when it comes to concussions.
"When helmets were first designed, they were designed to stop catastrophic injuries -- meaning death in our sport," he said. "As we've progressed in our sport through the years, we've come upon an epidemic we didn't see coming many years back, which is the concussion problem. Our [current] helmets aren't designed to stop concussions."
Messier's on a mission to popularize one that can help prevent them.
(Ed. Note: The spiffy new helmet Messier is promoting is not the one pictured above.)
Messier's entering a new phase in his hockey life. He'll be a special assistant in the New York Rangers' front office this season, a move many feel is a stepping stone to the general manager's office.
"Not sure where this will take me," said Messier, during a conference call this week. "I'll take my time, see what I really like and if I really like it. I feel I have a lot to offer, obviously."
Already, Messier's seeing what he'd like to fix with this year's Rangers. "Our power play wasn't good enough, and could have helped us out in a number of situations last year," he said.
But along with the front office gig, The Messier Project is a new venture for the former Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks star; a partnership with Cascade Sports that combines grassroots education with the release of state-of-the-art equipment to curb concussions.
Equipment like the new M11 helmet, which offers a streamlined design and compression to absorb impacts. It uses "Seven Technology," described by Cascade as "providing the protection of two helmets in the space of one - one for catastrophic hits and one for concussions."
Messier said the technology "immensely reduces the risk of concussions by distributing the blunt blow to the head," likening the overall design of the helmet to that of a motorcycle rider's.
The goal, he said, is to get NHL players to wear the helmets, which will naturally lead to younger players coveting them. (Messier said talks with the NHL and NHLPA have been positive regarding the Cascade sports gear, and that there's no conflict of interest with his serving on their board while working in the Rangers' front office.) Messier said he and his partners set a goal of five NHL players this season wearing the helmet, which he admits is conservative.
After that credibility is established, the grassroots education efforts can really begin.
Messier said there needs to be more emphasis on head safety for young players. "We spent all our money on technology, on skates and sticks and equipment; but none of the money's been spent on headgear, which is probably our most important piece of equipment," he said.
Can young players become overprotected? It's a delicate balance, according to Messier, who does see a fundamental change in the way the game is played with the advent of safer equipment over the years.
"Because our kids are so well-protected now, they don't grow up with the fear of the dangerous spots on the ice," he said, using face masks as an example. "The problem is that when they get to the point in their careers when they can take it off, it's a completely different game when you don't have face protection."
It's a different game, for sure; and puckheads all over the world argue every season whether it's a better game when the physicality is amplified. When asked if the NHL should attempt a ban on hits to the head as the OHL has in recent years, he said the League's power brokers will make the decisions on severity of penalties.
"The reality of our sport is that it's a dangerous sport. Accidents are going to happen. Not everyone is going to make the right choice. Injuries are a part of our sport."
It comes back to the equipment, he said, and Messier said that better protection for players can't be overruled by the desire for better aesthetics any longer.
"If, in the future, we come up with a helmet that's the safest of all, we're going to have to let go of our little egos and use something that is protecting us the most," he said.
"It all goes back to the idea that we don't want to lose our marketing requirements. But I keep getting back to NASCAR where they're in a car with a helmet on, and we still know who the top 10 drivers are. I don't think we can hide behind that excuse."
While image may not trump safety, Messier said the image of a safe sport is essential for growing the game: The last thing hockey needs is to scare off potential players because the equipment doesn't stand up to the brutality.
"I can only imagine the effects across Canada and the Unites States if we get to that point," he said.
"Hockey's supposed to be a fun game - it is a fun game - without the threat of being hurt."