More than a quarter of all helmets worn by hockey players, from the NHL to youth leagues, are unsafe, according to an independent study provided to “Outside the Lines” that ranked hockey helmets based on their ability to reduce concussion risk.
Out of 32 helmets in the marketplace that were tested by researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, nine failed to earn a single star on a five-star scale and were classified as “not recommended.” Just one helmet, made by Warrior Sports, received three stars. The rest received one or two stars. “In general, they’re low performers,” said Stefan Duma, the head of Virginia Tech’s department of biomedical engineering and mechanics, which spent three years and $500,000 developing the ratings. The study did not receive funding from the helmet industry.
Hockey players wearing the “not recommended” helmets risk incurring at least six concussions per season, and in some cases more than eight, according to Virginia Tech. “We don’t think anybody should be playing in these helmets,” Duma said of the non-recommended models. The school released the ratings publicly on Monday; a paper detailing the system’s methodology will be published simultaneously in Annals of Biomedical Engineering, a scientific journal.
Virginia Tech introduced a similar ratings system for football helmets in 2011. The rankings drew some criticism but ultimately led companies to overhaul their product lines. Virginia Tech defines five stars as the “best available” helmet; one star is “marginal.” The two most expensive hockey helmets on the market, made by Bauer and CCM, received one-star ratings.
Nearly 2.4 million Americans play hockey, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, has a higher rate of concussions than any other sport. The Virginia Tech study raises questions about the methods by which hockey helmets are tested and adds fuel to the debate over whether helmets can do much to prevent concussions, an injury that is difficult to diagnose and dependent on myriad factors ranging from individual tolerance to neck strength.
All 32 helmets rated by Virginia Tech were previously certified as safe by the Hockey Equipment Certification Council, or HECC, a non-profit organization. Helmet manufacturers make up part of HECC’s certification committee, along with consumer and general interest representatives. Both the NCAA and USA Hockey, the national governing body for ice hockey in the United States, require that players use HECC-certified helmets. The NHL requires that helmets meet the requirements of both HECC and the Canadian Standards Association.
To become certified, HECC requires that helmets withstand 300 G’s; the CSA requirement is 275. Although those standards will prevent most skull fractures and other catastrophic injuries, research shows that most concussions occur when the head is exposed to far lower levels of force.
Asked if he was concerned about Virginia Tech’s findings, Dr. Alan Ashare, HECC’s president, replied: “I would say yes.” But he said it remained unclear whether a helmet receiving a higher star rating actually could correspond to a lower concussion risk, adding that no helmet can “guarantee that you’re not going to have concussions.”