Mastering the Basics: the history and roles of equipment in hockey

How has hockey equipment changed and how has that affected safety and the game itself?

A shot of a goalie at the top of his crease with blue equipment, ready to face a shot.
A standard NHL set of goalie equipment can cost up to $10,000. Andy Hall / Unsplash

By: Greg Makarov, Sports Writer

One might think defensive equipment has existed in hockey since its beginnings, but that would be wrong.

The first-ever sticks were made from “a single piece of wood,” while skates were simply shoes with a blade added to the bottom, offering players little support. The quality of the ice did not make things any better. With artificial ice not having been invented yet, ice rinks were just rectangular frozen puddles. Until the 1900s, sticks, padding, and skates were all that was offered for hockey players. Before the introduction of the National Hockey League in 1917, hockey was a hobby that ran on commitment and passion. 

As technology continued to improve, however, so did equipment — padded hockey gloves, elbow pads, and shoulder pads — with improvements added reactively as star players got hurt. A thumb reinforcement was added to hockey gloves after an injury in the 1930s. Alongside helmets, elbow pads, made out of leather, were designed to soften falls as the physicality of games increased. After World War II, leather was phased out by fibreglass and plastic manufacturing.

By the 1950s, equipment changed the face of the game. Players began to bend their sticks, creating a curve, known as a banana blade. In doing so, players could easily raise the puck off the ice, moving away from the typical slap shot across the ice, and introducing elevated shots, known as wrist shots. In the modern NHL, many star players have their own signature curve

The most dramatic change occurred for goalie gear. In the beginning, there were no protective masks, and goalie pads, filled with furniture stuffing, became extremely heavy as they got wet. One of the first changes was the widening of the goalie stick to stop pucks shot at the bottom of the net. A blocker piece was later added in combination with a trap glove in 1948

However, implementing these changes came slower for goalies as team owners refused to allow their netminders to wear protective masks. Jacque Plante was the first goalie to wear a mask in the NHL in 1959 — refusing to play otherwise. However, he was not the first one to wear a mask, as Elizabeth Graham used one in a women’s university league in 1927. 

With new hockey equipment came discussions regarding what was necessary to wear and for whom. For example, the “cat-eye” goalie mask, which increases visibility, is illegal to wear in Canada due to its failure to provide enough protection from sticks and pucks. In order to minimize skate cuts, neck guards were invented; however, currently, only goalies in the USA have to wear them. They are not mandated in the NHL, though the Canadian minor leagues require them. 

Overall, while equipment is still a work in progress, it continues to improve the safety of players and their performance. Better padding has allowed for cleaner hits and helmets offer protection against errant sticks. Fibreglass, carbon fibre, graphite, and kevlar have redefined stick construction, directly impacting the game with lighter and more flexible sticks. In conjunction with improved injury protocols, the NHL has become a much safer league than it was in its early days.

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