1979 was a significant year in the history of the NHL (National Hockey League). 1979 was the year that the wearing of helmets became mandatory. It was also the year that Craig MacTavish began his professional Hockey career in the NHL.
It’s also worth noting that MacTavish was drafted by the Boston Bruins in 1978, signing his contract before the 1979 helmet rule came into effect.
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Craig MacTavish was the last NHL player to not wear a helmet. Though he started his professional career in 1979 wearing a helmet, when he retired in 1997 he was no longer wearing a helmet.
The road that led to Craig MacTavish’s choice is an interesting one. Read on to learn how the NHL helmet rule was received by players, as well as how and why Craig MacTavish held out for so long.
How the NHL Helmet Rule Came to Be
When the NHL first got its start in 1917, wearing a helmet was not a common occurrence. In fact, the first routine use of a helmet for safety was by George Owen in the 1928-29 season.
After that it seemed like helmet use would spike every time there was a traumatic injury, starting with the incident between Ace Bailey and Eddie Shore in 1933. But, it was the death of Bill Masterton in 1968 that really kicked off the idea that helmet use should be mandated in the league.
Wearing a helmet was not at all popular until it became mandatory in 1979, and even then players that had signed their first professional contract prior to the ruling were able to sign a waiver and opt out of wearing a helmet. At this point, about 30% of players opted out of wearing a helmet.
Why Helmet Use Was Frowned Upon
It took 18 years before helmet use became universal in the NHL, and the process was slow for a reason. Not only were there aesthetic reasons, but players did have some valid performance concerns.
Before the mandate in 1979, hockey players were hesitant to use a helmet, even if they believed it would provide them with better protection. As long as many players were not using a helmet, the pressure to avoid one was enough to limit helmet usage.
Aesthetics aside, it was believed at the time that helmets increased the players’ chances of overheating while playing due to body heat being released through the top of the head. More likely the overheating was due to players pushing themselves too hard and becoming dehydrated.
Hockey players working up a sweat on the ice are at an increased risk of dehydration due to their gear, so wearing a helmet can become quite uncomfortable despite the ice cool environment.
Helmets also limit field of vision, which can be quite costly in a fast-paced game. If a player is not able to see or hear well while on the ice, their abilities are reduced, and it can cut their efficiency enough to make a difference.
Craig MacTavish: The Last NHL Player to Not Wear a Helmet
Craig MacTavish refers to the reasons mentioned above when asked why he refused to wear a helmet, although he had already become accustomed to wearing a helmet from his college playing days before he moved up to the Boston Bruins in 1979.
It was not until MacTavish joined the Edmonton Oilers five seasons later that his helmet use stopped. He had become more and more comfortable practicing without one, so it seemed to make sense to apply that to his professional games.
MacTavish went three seasons without using a helmet, but he did revert back to wearing one in the 1988-89 season. When he stopped after this point the main reason he mentioned was overheating.
MacTavish would get so hot that he would get physically sick during the game, and so he decided against helmets following that season.
Luckily, MacTavish did not suffer any injuries to the head for the entirety of his hockey career, and when he retired in 1997 the closest thing he had to a helmet was the hair on his head.
The Modern NHL Helmet Rule
The NHL helmet rule has not changed much through the years, and you can read about it, along with other uniform regulations, in the Official Rule Book of the NHL. For the most part, players are expected to:
- Wear a helmet that meets the design, material, and construction standards of the League
- Either exit the playing surface or quickly recover the helmet if it comes off during play
- Avoid interfering with other player’s helmets
The only time it seems to be okay for a player to be on the ice without a helmet is if that player is the goalkeeper, they lose their helmet, and the opposing team has control with an immediate opportunity to score.
Failing to adhere to these rules can result in varying penalties, but it can also result in injury to the player.
Helmet use in the NHL has been controversial through the years, but the understanding that helmets protect players from severe injuries and even death seems to have sunk in.
Now spectators and players alike have turned their attention to arguing about the verbiage of helmet use during games, but neither party seems to refute the safety offered by protective gear.