Heads Up On Concussions In Minor Leagues

You can replace a missing tooth, but discussion is mounting on a piece of equipment designed to protect one of an athlete’s most valuable assets – their brain.

CJ Ficek, product manager for Helmets and Facial at Bauer Hockey, shows off features of Bauer's 9900 helmet designed to minimize the risk of concussions. Photo by Omar Mosleh.

As concussions in both professional and minor league hockey grow increasingly common, there has been plenty of discourse among hockey coaches and parents on how to address the issue. A concussion is a temporary brain injury that results from an impact to the head or body that causes the brain to move inside the skull.

Concerned parents as well as hockey and health professionals gathered on March 2 at a Bauer-sponsored event to discuss head safety, concussions, and proper helmet fitting.

Some parents, such as Marianne Eaves, decried what she perceived as the lack of emphasis on helmets.

“Why in the GTHL have we been so mouth guard driven?” she asked. “We’re spending $200 on a mouth guard, and $60 on a helmet, and that’s wrong,” she said. “No one has even looked at my son’s helmet.”

Larry Weber, director of risk management compliance for Bauer Hockey, acknowledged that in the past helmets were primarily designed only to meet the mandatory criteria of the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), which focuses on protecting against high-impact focal injuries such as skull fractures and lacerations, and hence there hasn’t been much discussion about them in recent years.

Concussions, which can often be caused by low-energy impacts, have slowly been factored into helmet design over the last few years.

“A lot has changed. Some of the materials may look the same, but the engineering, weight and densities have been vastly improved over the past few years,” he said. “The shells are different, and the mechanism for fitting has been improved.”

CJ Ficek, product manager for Helmets and Facial at Bauer Hockey, said there are two relatively new technologies featured in their newest helmet, the 9900. The two materials are designed to manage both low and high-energy impacts to reduce the chance of major focal injuries as well as concussions.

One material to look out for is the FXPP liner, or Fused Expanded Polypropylene. This liner minimizes the damage incurred by “catastrophic” impacts with beads that are fused together allowing less energy to transfer through.

Another new technology that can be found in high-end helmets is Poron XRD, a light foam designed to absorb the force from low-energy impacts. And while innovations in technology have gone far in improving safety, the professionals all agreed that the most important factor remains the same: fitting.

No matter how advanced your helmet is, if it doesn’t fit properly, it’s not protecting properly. Fortunately, manufacturers have added a number of safeguards to new helmets to ensure a proper fit. One of these is tool-less or tool-free adjustment, which is fairly common among helmets these days. The feature allows parents to easily open the helmet to its full size without any screws, in order to accommodate more head shapes.

Another feature parents can look out for is an occipital lock at the back of the helmet. The occipital lock debuted around 2007-08 and locks onto the occipital bone in order to ground the helmet to the back of the head. Ficek said these new features are crucial in ensuring a proper fit.

“If your head is not in the exact circumference of that helmet, then there’s gaps, even if there’s a strap adjustment at the back,” he said. “Any time there’s a gap, the helmet is not protecting properly. It’s something to really look out for.”

In fact, incorrect fitting can actually increase the risk of injury, said Dr. Lisa Fischer, director of primary care sports medicine at the Fowler Kennedy Sports Medicine Clinic.

Ficek said it’s also important for the chinstrap to be strapped securely, and he recommended parents place their kids’ helmets about ½ an inch above the eyebrow.

Industry professionals also cautioned against the overuse of helmets. Like any equipment, helmets degrade over time and decrease in effectiveness. While the CSA does not have an official expiry date for hockey helmets, most will have a certification expiry date from HECC, which is 6 ½ years from the date of manufacture.

It’s also important to note that concussions can also be caused by impacts to other body parts such as the chest or shoulder. As a result, the only true safeguard is safe and responsible playing.

“There is no helmet that can prevent concussions in every circumstance,” Weber said. “The idea that you can wear a magic bullet on your head and you’ll be completely impregnable, that’s not going to happen.”

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