helmets for hockey players, 1947: richard and lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos

Top Gear: Elmer Lach, on the right, fits linemate Maurice Richard with the helmet he wore for all of two games in 1947. Lach’s, just visible at the bottom of the frame, didn’t have quite so long a career on NHL ice.

Helmets for hockey players weren’t exactly new in 1947, but in the NHL neither were they a common sight — unless you were looking at defenceman Jack Crawford of the Boston Bruins, the lone man among the league’s 120-odd skaters to regularly don headgear in the post-war era.

So what prompted two of the game’s best players to (very briefly) try a helmet in the early going of the 1947-48 season? Short answer: don’t know for sure.

It could have been that, well into their high-impact NHL careers, linemates Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach of the Montreal Canadiens reached a point where it seemed worthwhile to try to mitigate the risk of (further) head injury. Or maybe were they helping out a friend with a new product to promote? Either way, the experiment didn’t last long, raising a few eyebrows while it lasted, some mocking jeers for the cheap seats. Were the helmets too heavy, too hot, too attention-getting to last? That’s something else that’s not entirely clear: just why Richard and Lach decided to ditch their helmets after just two games.

Both players, in 1947, knew well what could happen to your hockey-playing head out on the ice.

Elmer Lach, 29 at the time, was well established in the league as an elite scorer. Two years earlier he’d won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Said his coach, Dick Irvin, in 1948: “I’ve seen them all in the last 20 years as a coach and I played against the best for some years before that and to my mind Lach is certainly among the three great centres of all time.” (The other two: Howie Morenz and Mickey MacKay.)

Lach was also, famously and unfortunately, prone to injury. The headline in 1950 when Trent Frayne came to chronicle this painful propensity for The Saturday Evening Post: “You Can’t Kill A Hockey Player.” Lach’s skill and spirit was beyond doubt, Frayne wrote; “this all-out performer” also happened to be the man who’d been “injured severely more often than anyone in this violent game.” In his second year in the NHL, he’d missed all but Montreal’s opening game after a fall into the boards broke his wrist, dislocated a shoulder, and shattered his elbow. He was subsequently sidelined by a fractured cheekbone and (both in the same season) one broken jaw after another.

Then when Don Metz of the Toronto Maple Leafs hit him in early February of 1947 — as Frayne described it, his feet were “thrust into the air so that he landed on the top of his head. His skull was fractured, and for a brief period his life was in danger.” Montreal accused Metz of general malevolence and specific spearing, while in Toronto the hit was declared fair and clean. Upon further review, NHL President Clarence Campbell decided that the injury was accidental. (Lach, as it turned out, agreed. He’d tell Frayne that he took a check like Metz’s a hundred times a season without aftermath; in this case, he just happened to have been off-balance at the moment of impact.)

Lach didn’t play again that season. Without him, Montreal still made their way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell in six games to the Maple Leafs. Richard’s performance that April might have itself been a further argument in favour of protecting the heads of hockey players, except that it wasn’t, really, at the time — the lesson didn’t seem to take. In the second game of the series, Montreal’s 26-year-old Rocket twice swung his stick at and connected with bare Leaf heads, cutting and knocking out winger Vic Lynn and then later going after Bill Ezinicki, who seems to have stayed conscious if not unbloodied. Both Lynn and Ezinicki returned to the fray that night; Richard got a match penalty and a one-game suspension for his trouble.

“Elmer Lach looking in the pink and shooting in the low 70s on the golf course,” Montreal’s Gazette was reporting in August of ’47. “No more ill effects from that fractured skull.” He had a strong training camp that fall back between Richard and left-winger Toe Blake. In mid-October, with Montreal about to launch a new campaign at home against the New York Rangers, Richard waited until an hour before the puck dropped to sign his contract for the season. But once that was done, it was back to business as usual for Canadiens’ famous Punch Line.

Nokomis’ Own Dandy: Lach in his helmet on the day of its debut, November 27, 1947.

Lach and Richard didn’t don their helmets until late November, a full 15 games into the schedule. Montreal had already played Toronto twice that year, with all concerned coming through more or less unscathed, so it doesn’t seem like they added the headgear merely because it was the Maple Leafs in town. Canadiens’ trainer Ernie Cook was said to have known nothing of the headgear until he saw Lach and Richard skate out on the Forum ice on the night of November 28. The sight was rare enough that Dink Carroll of The Gazette saw fit to describe to his readers just how these newfangled contraptions worked: they “appeared to be made of plastic material and were fastened by straps that went under the chin.”

Red Burnett’s take in The Toronto Daily Star: “Richard and Lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos.”

Fans recalling Lach’s injury would be comforted by the sight of his helmet, Carroll thought. In his Gazettecolumn that week, he wondered why more players didn’t favour similar protection. A decade earlier, he noted, a whole parcel of players had worn helmets, including Eddie Shore, Flash Hollett, Earl Seibert, and Babe Siebert — though of course all but Shore had eventually shed theirs, playing on without.

“Some say the helmets became uncomfortable after the players started to perspire,” Carroll wrote. “One of the featured of the newest model is that it absorbs perspiration, so that objection is no longer valid.”

And what about those fans who complained that helmets detracted from their views of their good-looking heroes? Carroll wasn’t buying it. “It is our belief that the boys can wear helmets on the ice without detracting too much from their glamour while acquiring more protection than they now enjoy.”

Boxed: Maurice Richard sits out his third-period elbowing penalty during the November 27 game at the Forum.

But even then, the trial was almost over. The night Lach and Richard debuted the helmets at the Forum, Montreal beat the Leafs by a score of 2-0. Two nights later, when the teams met again at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the home team prevailed, 3-1.

Again, Lach and Richard started the game with headgear in place, for the second and last time.The DailyStar reported that the helmet was a model manufactured by a friend of Richard’s, and this was the Rocket aiding in the marketing effort. It “looked like a halved coconut,” one wag noted; another overheard the local quip that Lach and Richard were trying to keep “their heads from swelling any further.”

None of the game summaries I’ve read mention that maybe the Leafs’ Gus Mortson would have benefitted from a helmet of his own. Reacting to a bodycheck, Kenny Reardon swung his stick and cut Mortson’s head, earning himself a five-minute major. Mortson? “Continued to play, turned in a good game,” the Globe’s Nickleson wrote.

Richard’s helmet seems to have made it through to the end of the game in Toronto, after which its NHL career ended for good. His teammate’s took an earlier retirement. “Lach discarded his headgear for the third period,” Nickleson noted, “which led Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson to remark that ‘Lach’s taken off his bathing cap.’”

For Montreal’s next game, in Detroit, Lach and Richard returned to regular bare-headed order. With that, the debate for and against helmets in the NHL went into hibernation for another couple of decades. The anniversary of its awakening is this week, in fact: Tuesday it will have been 51 years since Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died at the age of 29 after a hit that knocked him and his unhelmeted head to the ice.

Tusslers: Richard and Toronto defenceman Gus Mortson … hard to say what they’re up to, actually. A bit of vying, I guess; some grappling?

conflict of interests: crashing the net, 1937

“I guess it’s discretionary,” Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was saying earlier this winter. He’d been asked by a reporter about goalie interference, what it looks like, how to identify it in the wild. He was calm, as he tends to be. He was also, as he doesn’t, mostly befuddled. “I couldn’t tell you what’s a penalty and what’s not. That’s something that I don’t understand.”

The NHL can’t be pleased that this kind of bewilderment has emerged as a central theme of the centenary it’s celebrating this year. What the league would prefer, I’m guessing, is for a magical intervention whereby all goalie interfering would cease, and thereby all the complaining, too, that players and coaches and fans and commentators are doing.

Failing that, NHL general managers last week took a run at refining the protocol for reviewing purported cases of goalies being jounced, jarred, and otherwise jolted. The GMs want to take the decision-making on what’s happening in and around creases out of the hands of referees on the ice and pass it over to the league’s all-seeing hockey operations headquarters in Toronto. That’s now been approved, apparently, and will be the way things are done starting this week.

Since this is such a big anniversary year, maybe the NHL should be doing more to commemorate the history of its skaters crashing, inadvertently or not, into its goaltenders. In that direction, I’m offering up this photograph, from December of 1937, when the Montreal Canadiens met the local Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The game ended in a 2-2 tie. Seen here is Montreal attacking the Rangers’ net in the third as Pit Lepine buffaloes past New York goaltender Dave Kerr on the way to scoring Canadiens’ second goal. Babe Pratt is the Ranger defenceman to the fore, with stick raised; the Montrealer partly obscured by the net is possibly Toe Blake, who assisted on the goal.

I don’t know if there was a review — none of the newspapers accounts I’ve consulted mention any. “Lepine poked the puck into the cage,” is the most detailed account I’ve seen of the goal.

If that is Lepine. Another item I’ve come across from later on this same season might cast some doubt on that — maybe.

Look at the head of the player crashing past Dave Kerr. The resolution of the image isn’t so sharp, but you can see that there’s something going on up there. Assuming that’s not a monkly tonsure, then he’s probably wearing a helmet. If so, it doesn’t look like a wholly protective model, sitting as it seems to be mostly to the back of Lepine’s head. The Detroit Red Wings experimented with a head-protector like that earlier in the 1930s, so it could be one of those.

Another possibility? Just a month after the game depicted here, in January of 1938, a keen-eye New York reporter noted that Toe Blake was sporting “perhaps the oddest headgear” in the NHL. “It is made of a discarded set of shoulder pads,” he advised, “one fibre cup on the front of his head, the other in back. He finds this contraption lighter than a helmet.”

So is this maybe Toe Blake crowned with shoulder-pads we’re viewing here? I guess it’s possible too that Lepine could have taken a page from his winger’s stylebook and fashioned his own colloquial headgear. Either way, whoever it is, and whatever he’s wearing, Dave Kerr doesn’t look too impressed. That’s clear enough.

 

top gear

Alex Levinsky was in his mid-20s by the time he joined the Chicago Black Hawks in the mid-1930s, a veteran defenceman whose adjectives included big and bumping and hardrock, and whose headgear here — I don’t know, looks to me like it’s a borrowed football helmet rather than bespoke hockey apparatus. Born in Syracuse, New York, Levinsky grew up in Toronto, on Markham Street, where he was living in his parents’ house when he made his NHL debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the winter of 1931. He’d been all-round star athlete at the University of Toronto, won a Memorial Cup with the Toronto Marlboros in 1929, enrolled at Osgoode Hall with a mind on a law career. Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe talked him into sticking to the ice. Levinsky was the league’s only Jewish player when he joined the Leaf defence, though not the first in NHL history: Charlie Cotch, Sam Rothschild, and Moe Roberts preceded him, possibly others. Joining Hap Day, Red Horner, and King Clancy on the Leaf blueline, Levinsky won a Stanley Cup in 1932. He was New York Ranger briefly before he ended up with Chicago. When Bill Stewart took up there as coach in the fall of 1937, he quietly set aside Major Frederic McLaughlin’s mandate for an all-American roster along with the uniform that Levinsky’s wearing here. That may or may not have had something to do with the surprise the Black Hawks sprang the following spring, surprising Levinsky’s old team from Toronto to win the Stanley Cup.

 

the helmet debate, 1933: all for a jockey cap lined with rubber

helmets 1937

Poison Control: A few years after Ace Bailey’s grievous head injury, the Detroit Red Wings paid a visit to Madison Square Garden to play the hometown New York Americans. The Amerks won, 3-2, though this wasn’t one of their goals. Detroit’s becapped goaltender is Normie Smith, with Nels Stewart coming at him. Late to the party is Red Wing forward Gord Pettinger. (Photo: International News)

Ace Bailey’s career as a fleet Toronto Maple Leafs’ winger came to a stop on the night of December 13, 1933, when Boston’s Eddie Shore knocked him to the ice, which his head hit with a sickening sound. Bailey, 30, wasn’t expected to live that night. He did recover, but never played hockey again.

 Pre-Bailey, NHL players seldom wore helmets. They started to think differently, some of them, in the aftermath. A week after the accident, Harold C. Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle polled members of the New York Americans and Detroit Red Wings to get their thoughts on covering their heads. Their answers:

Red Dutton (New York Americans, defence)

I wouldn’t wear one of the things for anybody. If I had one of those contraptions on my head I couldn’t see a forward heaving at me. There has only been one previous accident like Bailey’s. The modern hockey player won’t be able to move if you load him down with any more dead weight.

Cooney Weiland (Detroit Red Wings, centre)

All depends on the individual player. It’s a new suggestion and might work out fine.

Rabbit McVeigh (New York Americans, right wing)

I’d be all for a jockey cap lined with rubber.

Johnny Sorrell (Detroit Red Wings, left wing)

I imagine nothing could be done to prevent the sweat running down in to the eyes. And that would make you tire more quickly.

Normie Himes (New York Americans, centre)

Helmets wouldn’t be popular with the players. The agitation was started once before in Canada.

Roy Worters (New York Americans, goal)

It’s a good idea — if you could design some kind of light fibre cap. I wouldn’t want to be seen dead in front of my nets in one myself. But then goalies would have more need of a baseball mask.

Joe Simpson (New York Americans, coach)

What happened to poor Ace wouldn’t happen again in ten years. I don’t believe that you could get any of the fellows to wear ’em.

John Ross Roach (Detroit Red Wings, goal)

It would be a protector against any repetition of the Boston tragedy. The goalie could wear it easier than anybody else on the ice. It wouldn’t feel so hot on his head.

Bill Brydge (New York Americans, defence)

It’s a good idea, if the helmet wasn’t too heavy. Of course, a football headgear would be out. I wear a cap now to lessen the shock of the blows. I was hit in the eye in practice this fall, and that’s why I’m sporting a longer peak to my cap, if you’ve noticed.

Hap Emms (Detroit Red Wings, left wing)

No good. Hockey players lose nearly all their teeth as it is. This way, it wouldn’t be a month before all their hair started falling out, too.