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How Equipment Changed the Game

October 16, 2011 Equipment 1 Comment

How equipment changed the game
By Bill Ferguson
Nov 5, 2001, 19:54


To put this topic in proper perspective, we must start in a gray area, as the origin of hockey is claimed by both Canada and Russia. Regardless, it is safe to say that at some point in time, someone somewhere strapped a pair of skate blades to their boots, picked up a stick and used either a rubber or leather puck—or a can of frozen salmon cut into disks—to shoot into a goal. Voila! Hockey.

Bear in mind that with each minor improvement in equipment came at least some minor improvement in how players could utilize their skills.

It is also safe to say that in those early days the skates were made of steel—and so were the players, because there was no protective equipment. We know that most teams were clubs, formed for the game, which were usually centered around either companies, or towns.

About this time, someone said “Ow, that hurts!,” and stuck some newspapers in their pants. The first shin guards were born. And when this player zipped around a defenseman who whacked him on the shins and, instead of falling in pain, kept going and scored, the defenseman undoubtedly said, “I gotta get me some of them!”

Early protective gear allowed players to be a little more intense, a little more competitive, and not get killed. It’s been said that the early hockey players were mostly lumberjacks who played on their days off for fun—so those of you out there who are “wood choppers” come by it honestly.

The earliest true hockey skates were no more than regular boots with blades attached. Even 25 years ago, most skates lacked much in the way of protection and tended to be too flexible, causing many first time skaters to think “My ankles aren’t strong enough to skate.” Blade holders at this time were all steel, with a plastic tip on the back end as required by USA Hockey rules, to prevent serious injuries. Graf was one of the first manufacturers to go more toward the ski boot type of construction, and their early models gave great support, but were significantly heavier than most other brands. Modern manufacturers have learned to incorporate high tech materials like Kevlar and other composites to give excellent support and light weight. Lighter skates make for faster skaters.


One word: plastics

The first hockey gloves were made from a canvas type material, which was superseded by leather. For the next 100 years, all protective gear was made from a combination of these materials, yet it was heavy, especially when wet—and the more they protected, the more inflexible they tended to be.

It wasn’t until the late 40s or early 50s that plastic was incorporated into these designs. Plastics afforded a little more protection, and a little less weight, but could only be used in certain areas, primarily shin guards, cups and shoulder pads. Keep in mind, however, that as recently as 25 years ago, most protective gear—with the exception of shin guards—appeared flimsy by today’s standards.

In the early ‘80s, Cooper incorporated a bubble-foam type material into their shoulder pads which was very lightweight, and gave incredible protection, allowing a player to take a butt-end to the chest without injury.

In the early seventies, few players wore helmets. Those who did were considered “less manly” by their teammates. Eventually the NHL made helmets mandatory for all new players, but even before that, many old timers were decrying the helmet as a detriment to the game. Their logic? When no one wore a helmet, all players were a little more conscious of keeping their sticks down. With everyone wearing a helmet this wasn’t as necessary in order to survive the game, so newer players came in with high sticks as a matter of course.

This debate rages on even today, as visors and cages—some say—accentuate the problem of careless, or reckless, stickwork. Can it be true that there is sometimes a price to pay for progress?

You’ll also hear old timers whine about the curved stick, and how “it ruined the game.” But from Bobby Hull forward, the vast majority of players have embraced the curved stick as a significant improvement in the development of equipment. One can definitely fire the puck harder with a curved stick, and even squirt-age players can learn to offset the downside of the curved blade to utilize their backhand.

Another stick change that changed the game, albeit less so than the curved blade, is the aluminum or composite stick. The biggest difference with these new type of sticks is that by simply changing a blade, a player gets a “new” stick with exactly the same feel as his old one. Even pro model sticks, which are custom made to player specs, can vary in feel from one to another. The aluminum stick, created by baseball bat manufacturer Easton, changed all that. More recently, sticks made from composite materials have appeared on the hockey scene, and while no one has proven that these new sticks shoot any harder than the old wood ones, some players like them better—so say no more.


Changing pants, shirts

Even something as basic as hockey pants have changed over the years. The old style ones hung from the body and were almost baggy compared to today’s sleek contoured models. This trend toward a snug fit was started by Cooper with their original “Cooperall” pants. The pads were contained in a “girdle” that looked almost like a pair of women’s nylons covered by either a short or long nylon shell. With the short shell, they appeared no different than conventional pants, but with the long shell, no socks were worn. Some NHL teams, like the Flyers, even adopted this long pant as their uniform for a while. But goalies complained they tended to lose the puck in the “sea of black” in front of the net, so the NHL outlawed them. Another shortcoming was that the long pants would really slide on the ice, making it a little harder to control yourself and get back on your skates. While you rarely see these long-legged dinosaurs any more, the contoured style has stuck around.

What about “silly” stuff like lighter-weight jerseys? Think about it. All jerseys used to be made of a heavyweight cotton, which was hot and held water, or sweat—meaning they grew heavier as the game wore on. Most jerseys today are a lightweight mesh that breathes and allows air flow—meaning the player stays cooler—and don’t hold water, so they don’t gain weight as the game wears on. Sometimes you only need a little edge to look, and feel, a lot better.

Certainly the one player who has gained the most from technological breakthroughs is the goalie, and the single most important aspect of how these modern innovations have improved his game is in reducing the weight of his equipment. Whereas forwards and defensemen can share equally in the benefits of new, lightweight gear, the goalie stands alone, so to speak; there is no one skating with him. Give him faster reflexes and greater mobility through lighter, more flexible gear—while offering as good or even better protection—and you have a quicker, more agile goalie. It’s easy to see how this would make him look better. Add to this the more scientific, innovative training techniques and one can begin to understand why goals against averages have been plummeting in the NHL.

The most visible equipment innovation for goalies was obviously the mask. Prior to Jacques Plante’s invention, which was viewed at the time as a mere curiosity, goalies were expected to make the save with their face if needed. Imagine that! Come to think of it, the mask came along a little after the slapshot, so maybe it was a cause and effect thing. Originally no more than a piece of plastic, then a cage, today’s goalie mask is a custom made, form fitted fiberglass composite affair that is designed to deflect both the impact away from the goalies face, and the puck into the corner. There are no flat surfaces on these face savers, and the fanciest ones are a mask/helmet combination complete with custom paint jobs that can run well over $1000! No problem! Is your face worth it?

Time rolls on

There is one equipment innovation that you never see in an NHL game, yet which has done more for the sport of hockey than anything since Gretzky: inline skates. When Larry Bruyere, owner of the All Star Hockey and Sport chain of pro shops first showed us an early pair of Rollerblades, we all thought “how cute!” When he asked if we wanted to try them, we said “get out of here”.

Of course, now we all own several pairs, as do our kids. Even more important, players at all levels can now skate year round in exactly the same skating stride one uses on ice, with the only difference being in stopping. They allow the player to enjoy the outdoors while training (as opposed to a gym), and have even created another level of pro hockey player. Many players of less-than-NHL caliber who used to only skate the “Iron Leagues” in the winter months, now enjoy a “second season” with RHI. Some even consider it their Number One season!

Of course, the inline skate is an innovation widely recognized as having been born in Eastern Europe as an offseason training aid for speed skaters. Perhaps if Canada knew how hot inlines would eventually become, they would be fighting over credit for them, too!

Inline hockey has also introduced an entire generation of American kids to the game of hockey, which will benefit pro hockey in many ways for years to come. Thank goodness they don’t have to just stand around a field all summer, waiting for someone to hit a ball to them. They can now enjoy the non-stop action that is hockey.


Better ice, too

How about non-player stuff?

There are a couple of things that changed the game which players don’t wear, like fiberglass boards. Boards used to be boards. Then they covered them with plastic. That helped, but not as much as when they began to make them with fiberglass. Pucks bounce perhaps two-to-three times farther off fiberglass boards than they do off plywood. This opens up a whole new dimension, the vertical one, that just wasn’t as useful prior to the advent of fiberglass. It can make a defenseman look foolish, and has made even NHL goalies sometimes appear out to lunch—such as when a lively bad carom goes into the net instead of behind it.

Then there’s the ice itself, or more importantly, the equipment that prepares it.

Newer icemaking equipment is more energy efficient because the pipes are smaller than they used to be, yet closer to the ice surface. The game has benefited from technology that allows rinks to make ice much faster than they used to: the quicker the ice freezes, the less chance for flaws in the ice, and the easier it is for multi-use facilities to get a good surface down.

An even greater improvement came with the Zamboni, or rather the blades on it. An old time rink owner recently told me he changes his blade three or four times per year. He uses a stainless steel “disposable” blade which cannot be sharpened. State of the art facilities use steel blades which are changed once per week, and can be reused after sharpening. It’s more work but, because of an ever-sharp edge, gives a much smoother surface.

These are things that make the game faster, and allow the players to utilize more of their skills.

And as we all know, sometimes you just need that little edge to come out on top.

This first appeared in the 11/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2001 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. George Abela says:

    Hi my name is George Abela I worked for CCM. In Toronto Canada Aprox 47 years ago
    And worked for 15 years till CCM company moved to Montreal Canada , I used to make all skates figure skate and tucks with steel tube
    And blade welded together including sole all steel ,, my question is who invented the name of inventor the plastic tube and steel and than attached to the boots
    I was still at CCM when I saw the first plastic tube and blade being made , wish I found out who was the real inventor with that idea.. I’m sorry for taking your time and I Thank you so much if you can help me with this

    Sincerely thank you

    George Abela

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