Helmets for players in the National Hockey League were rare until the 1970s. On several occasions, prototypes and designs were proposed. With few exceptions, they were turned down by the league or shunned by the players. Several incidents along the way led to the mandatory rule that now has every NHL player and referee must wear a helmet. Some teams have added eye-protecting visors, shields and other safety gear.
At the 1927 annual meeting of the National Hockey League, Russell "Barney" Stanley, later a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, presented a prototype of a helmet that was rejected. One year later, George Owen, who played for the Boston Bruins and was also elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, became the first NHL player to wear a helmet.
The Bailey Incident
Helmets weren't worn again until December 12, 1933, when Toronto's King Clancy tripped Boston's Eddie Shore. To retaliate, Shore hit Toronto's Ace Bailey from behind. Bailey hit his head on the ice so hard that a priest at the game offered last rites. Bailey lived, but his playing career was over.
Reaction and Helmet Implementation
After the Bailey incident, Arthur Howey "Art" Ross, a player and hockey executive who was one of the first inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame, developed a new helmet design. During a game between the Boston Bruins and the Ottawa Senators, most of the players wore the new helmet. Although the Bruin players did not wear helmets for future games, Eddie Shore did. The Bailey incident prompted him to wear a helmet for the rest of his career.
Later during the 1930s, Toronto Maple Leaf players were ordered to add helmets to their equipment. After starting a game wearing a helmet, King Clancy and many others removed them as fans, media and opposing players taunted them. A few continued to wear helmets but for different reasons -- one to hide his bald head and another to protect the metal plate in his head.
During 1968, Minnesota North Stars player Bill Masterton died from a massive brain injury after striking his head on the ice. Soon after, helmets became popular in Russian and European leagues.These early helmets were made from thin copper and not exceptionally protective. During the 1979 season, protective helmets became mandatory in the NHL for all new players joining the league. Only players who signed a waiver and were already in the league prior to June 1979 could opt out of wearing a helmet. The last player to play without a helmet in the NHL was Craig MacTavish of the St. Louis Blues during the 1996 to 1997 season. Goalies were encouraged to wear helmets and masks sooner, with the last maskless goalie being Andy Brown in 1974.