The hockey helmet vs football helmet debate is really neither here nor there. Though they may look similar in some ways, they’re designed differently and are certified differently. Ultimately, helmets are designed to protect the head and both do a good job of that for the players in their respective sports.
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The problem with both NFL and NHL helmets is that they don’t prevent concussions. In fact, there’s no such thing as a helmet that is 100% effective at reducing concussions. While the NFL helmet is designed to reduce them in a better way than the NHL version, it’s still not foolproof.
NHL helmets are designed to prevent traumatic head injuries that may result from getting hit in the head by a flying puck or a hockey stick. However, 88% of all concussions that occur in the NHL are the direct result of player-to-player collisions.
NFL Helmets, on the other hand, are geared more toward impact absorption. While they don’t prevent concussions, they work to reduce the odds of receiving a concussion when two players collide.
NFL Helmet Design and Construction
Football, like hockey, is a full-contact sport and what defines a concussion, when two players collide, is the brain slamming up against the skull wall. Not only has the NFL invested in the radical redesign of their helmets, but they’ve also introduced rules to reduce impact injuries like concussions.
Much of this has been incorporated at the collegiate level as well. Ultimately, it has resulted in a 25% reduction in concussions throughout the 2020 football season.
The outer shell of NFL helmets is designed with molded polycarbonate. Like an archway in architecture, the molded polycarbonate is designed to absorb impact by spreading the force outward and into other materials.
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The inner lining is typically made of shock-absorbing material such as nitrile foam or polyurethane that’s designed to resist deformation. NFL helmets also may include shock absorbers, air pockets, liquid, and anything else that will decrease the force of impact.
Even the facemasks are designed to reduce impact forces. Using polyarmor G17, helmet designers have instituted a strong material design that resists and spreads out the impact forces from full contact.
NHL Helmet Design and Construction
Like football helmets, NHL helmets are constructed of a shell and a liner. While NFL helmets are made out of molded polycarbonate, the majority of NHL helmets are made out of High-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is a plastic substance formed into a harder shell.
It lacks the hardness of molded polycarbonate but is designed with the same feature in mind, which is to disperse or redistribute the force of an impact. The inner lining is no different in what it is designed for and is often no different in materials.
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Most hockey helmets have an inner lining that is made of Vinyl Nitrile, although in a softer, shock-absorbing way. The ones that aren’t composed of Vinyl Nitrile are usually made out of polypropylene foam.
Issues With Both Helmets
The problem with the hockey helmet is that there is no straightforward standard across the board whereby some players use visors and some don’t and some utilize a facemask where others don’t. They also allow players to wear different helmet types which conform to league-approved certification standards.
Without a singular standard helmet across the board, the NHL (and the NFL in 2022) would need to adopt a wholesale standard if new tech ever developed that would further reduce concussions.
While there’s a degree of truth to that at the NFL level, the NFL is much more streamlined when it comes to helmet designs and what the players have to wear. However, the NFL will allow players to switch between two helmet types in 2022.
The biggest differences in the NFL are brand-related, which is negligible when there’s a standard that all of those brands have to meet. But in terms of a hockey helmet vs a football helmet, the NHL version is playing a little bit of catch-up.
This is where both NHL and NFL helmets are trying to come together. Rotational motion is something that doctors and scientists have agreed largely contributes to concussions when engaged in shocking impacts.
The NHL’s answer to the problem of rotational forces is the Dynamic 9 Pro. This helmet incorporates what is known as the MIPS Brain Protection System. In terms of design, the Vinyl Nitrile is eschewed in favor of a one-piece, polycarbonate shell fused to an inner EPP liner.
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The EPP foam makes up the inner liner but the primary design of the helmet aims to reduce rotational motion attributed to the vast majority of concussions.
The NFL is looking at several design materials, including one that was invented by Robert Knight, a neurologist out of UC Berkley. His design incorporates an outer shell that moves independent of the inner shell, reducing rotational forces from impacts.
Thankfully, new technology is being considered in terms of both helmet types. Instead of a hockey helmet vs a football helmet, it will be more along the lines of how the two come together to further the safety of both sports.
As it stands, both helmets offer a level of protection for players of both sports, however, we haven’t quite reached the clearing at the end of the path.