When Did the NHL Require Helmets? We Explain The Hockey Helmet Rule

An old ice hockey game where nobody is wearing helmets. Two players are battling each other.

Safety is a critical element of any sport, especially in hockey and the National Hockey League. With concussion awareness at an all-time high, no piece of equipment is more crucial than the helmet. We’ll look at the history of helmets in hockey and answer the question of when did the NHL require helmets.

In this article, we’ll explain the hockey helmet rule and the penalties associated with it. We’ll also look at hockey before the mandatory helmet rule, review the goalie helmet rule, and the NHL visor rule. So strap on your brain bucket, and let’s dive into helmets in hockey!

Hockey Helmet History

A hockey puck can reach speeds of over 100 mph. Can you imagine getting hit with a slapshot in your head? That would mean lights out. It’s unbelievable that most hockey players did not wear helmets until they were forced to.

The first hockey helmets were used in the late 1920s, although helmets didn’t become mandatory in the NHL until long after that. George Owen of the Boston Bruins was the first player to wear a helmet regularly. There were numerous attempts by teams to encourage their players to wear helmets, but it usually didn’t last more than a game or two.

Hockey Before Helmets

Ice hockey is one of the toughest sports today, but 50 years ago, the brutality level was far greater. There was infinitely more fighting, cheap shots (especially headshots), high-sticking, and vicious body checks than today’s game allows. 

This was also a time when it was extremely rare to see hockey players wear helmets. Head injuries were a common occurrence; this was also when there was no concussion awareness. Player’s never missed a game due to a head injury; they were told to “Tough it Out” and play through the pain. Sadly, concussions are why many old-school NHL enforcers dealt with off-ice issues such as depression and substance abuse.

Why Didn’t Hockey Players Wear Helmets

In a hockey culture that celebrated toughness, helmets were viewed as a sign of weakness. The thought process was that all the tough guys did not wear helmets, so you must be weak if you did. Unfortunately, that is how our sports culture works; you must show you’re tough enough. We weren’t educated enough on the long-term effects of concussions.

Hockey Flow

Hockey flow is another word for hair, and we have to admit, it looks pretty cool to have long-flowing hair flopping around as a player skates at full speed up the ice. Although they probably won’t admit it, I’m sure some NHL players loved their hair on full display and were reluctant to cover it up.

Has Any Hockey Player Died on the Ice?

While ice hockey has had its fair share of serious injuries, there was only one time when a player died while playing an NHL game. In 1968 Bill Masterson of the Minnesota North Stars suffered a severe head injury after he fell and hit his head on the ice. Masterson was not wearing a helmet and died a few days after the devastating injury.

When Did the NHL Require Helmets?

In order to protect its players from the ever-looming and increasing threat of head injuries, the NHL made helmets mandatory in 1979. However, there was a “grandfather clause.” Those players who had signed professional contracts prior to June 1, 1979, were given a choice—to embrace the protective gear or to continue playing without it; but all new players had to wear a helmet. This exemption led to an interesting mix of helmeted and non-helmeted players co-existing on the ice for over a decade following the rule change.

This crucial transition wasn’t as seamless as it might seem. The decision was met with resistance from many NHL players and fans who perceived the use of helmets as compromising the raw toughness of the sport. Regardless, the National Hockey League pressed forward, and helmets soon became a new norm.

Who Was the Last NHL Player to Not Wear a Helmet

Craig MacTavish is playing hockey without a helmet, he was the last player to not wear a helmet after the hockey helmet rule.

Craig MacTavish will go down in hockey lore as the last NHL player to play without a helmet. That’s the only reason I know who Craig McTavish is; I can still picture his flowing hair standing out. He played until 1997, and for years he was the only player in the National Hockey League without a helmet.

MacTavish played most of his career with the Edmonton Oilers, winning a couple of Stanley Cups. He was an average player but will be remembered forever as the last hockey player to play without a helmet.


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NHL Helmet Rule 9.6 – Helmet Falls Off

According to Rule 9.6 in the NHL rulebook, if a player’s helmet comes off during active play, they are expected to either immediately retrieve and properly replace their helmet or exit the rink at the earliest opportunity. If a player chooses to continue participating in the game without a helmet, it leads to a two-minute minor penalty.

This rule was implemented in the 2019-2020 NHL season. Such a rule emphasizes the NHL’s dedication to player safety, prioritizing it over the game’s natural flow.

Can a Hockey Player Put Their Helmet Back On?

If you’re watching a game and you see a player’s helmet come off and they immediately skate to the bench, leaving the action, you might ask yourself, “Why don’t they just put their helmet back on?” Players can put their helmets back on and return to play, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. They have to unbuckle the chin strap, which is challenging to do in gloves, so it’s faster to just skate to the bench for a line change.

What if A Player Pulls Another Player’s Helmet Off?

A player who intentionally removes an opponent’s helmet shall be assessed a minor penalty for roughing.

Goalie Helmet Rule

The NHL rulebook section 9.6 says when a goalie’s helmet comes off, and their team has the puck, the referee blows the play dead. If the opposing team has the puck, play shall only be stopped if there is no immediate and impending scoring opportunity. 

The rule also states that if the goalkeeper intensionally removes their helmet during play in an attempt to force a whistle and stoppage of play, the referee shall assess a minor penalty for delay of game.

Sometimes a goalie will get hit on the side of their helmet, and one of the clips or straps that hold the helmet on will break. If this happens, the goalie is allowed to take their helmet off if it is already coming off due to the broken clip.

When Did Hockey Goalies Start Wearing Helmets?

An old hockey game where nobody is wearing a helmet, even the goalie doesn't have a helmet on while playing ice hockey

It’s crazy enough that NHL players didn’t start wearing helmets until the 1980s, but can you imagine that goalies didn’t wear helmets either? Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens was the first to don a mask in an NHL game in 1959 after a shot broke his nose.

The full, modern goalie helmet didn’t debut until the late 1970s and early 1980s. Combining a mask and cage, this design offered significantly better protection. Since then, advancements in materials and design have further improved the helmet’s safety and comfort. And the personalized designs have gotten pretty cool too!

A close up of a hockey goalie featuring their cool goalie helmet or mask.

Do NHL Players Have to Wear Helmets During Warmups?

Along with the helmet falling off rule that was introduced in 2019 came the rule that all incoming players who entered the league in 2019 or later were subject to mandatory helmet use in warmups too. 

As with the helmet rule, a grandfather clause applied to players who were already in the NHL; they had the option not to wear a helmet in warmups. 

NHL Visor Rule

At the start of the 2013 season, the National Hockey League made a mandatory visor rule for all players who had played 25 NHL games or less. Again, any player who had more than 25 games had the option to not wear a visor and was grandfathered in.

This makes us wonder who will be the Craig MacTavish of visors, the last NHL player to play without a visor. My money is on Ryan O’Reilly.

Some people believe this rule was implemented in an attempt to cut down on fighting. It really hurts to take a punch at a guy and end up hitting their visor; it could break your hand. 

In the season before the mandatory visor rule started, there was a terrifying incident where Marc Stall of the New York Rangers was hit in the left eye with a deflected slapshot and almost lost permanent vision, but he was able to recover.

Final Thoughts on Mandatory Helmet Use

The transformation of the NHL’s helmet rule mirrors a broader cultural shift in our understanding of player safety in sports. In the early days of hockey, helmets were viewed more as a hindrance than a protective necessity. The game was defined by a rugged, bare-knuckle spirit, with players fearlessly taking to the ice with their heads unprotected.

As the potential dangers associated with head injuries became more apparent,  the necessity for change became more prominent. The decision to implement the mandatory helmet rule was far from easy, facing resistance from those attached to the traditional ‘toughness’ associated with the sport. 

In retrospect, the journey of the helmet in professional hockey paints a picture of progress. It illustrates the NHL’s growing commitment to player safety, which has only strengthened with time. Today, the sight of players, from skaters to goalies, taking to the ice with their helmets securely fastened is a testament to the evolution of the sport—a blend of thrilling action, respect for tradition, and an unwavering focus on player wellbeing. It’s a journey that has allowed hockey to maintain its raw intensity while ensuring its players are better protected than ever before.

Personally, I couldn’t imagine playing hockey without a helmet; that seems crazy to me! 

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