Hockey Helmet History

I guess I’m lucky that my working life has mostly been an interesting one. I’ve always been a person who didn’t like to do anything he didn’t like to do — and I’ve mostly been able to get away with that! Barbara and I always used to say that we may not make a lot of money doing what we do, but we get to meet some very interesting people and have some pretty neat experiences.

As I’ve said a lot lately, I’m kind of burnt out on hockey. But it does still help me pay my bills, so I continue to pay at least some attention. I may not watch very much these days — it’s not my job to do that anymore — but it turns out that I still enjoy poking around in hockey history.

Next weekend, I’ll be attending the Annual General Meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) being held in Windsor, Ontario. (That’s the Victoria Day weekend for those you in Canada, or the “they have a holiday before Memorial Day?!?” weekend for you in the United States.)

In the most recent edition of the SIHR Bulletin, Bill Sproule of Houghton, Michigan, posted the following picture he’d recently come across of the 1914-15 Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association…

picture

In this photo, Ernie “Moose” Johnson (third from the left) can clearly be seen wearing a leather football helmet. Bill’s accompanying story dealt with the well-told early history of helmets in hockey, which is always said to have begun with George Owen — a former Harvard football star — of the Boston Bruins in 1928-29. (It appears that football players began wearing helmets as early as 1893!) Bill rightfully wonders if Moose Johnson should be credited as the first pro hockey player to wear a helmet.

Now — surprise, surprise! — I have some doubts about the George Owen story. If he did wear a helmet during his rookie season in 1928-29 (and he may have), it certainly wasn’t widely publicized. Coincidently, when Owen played his first NHL game in Canada against the Canadiens on January 10, 1929, the Montreal Gazette had a story about a player named Nick Carter (aka Fred Carter) wearing a leather rugby football helmet to protect a cut on his head when his Canadian National Railway team faced the Bell Telephone team in a Railway-Telephone Hockey League game (I’m not kidding!) at the Forum the night before. In a story about hockey helmets following the death of Bill Masterton that appeared in The Boston Globe on January 18, 1968, veteran sportswriter Harold Kaese noted that Jack Culhane of Boston College wore a helmet playing hockey during the 1920s. So guys were definitely wearing them that far back, and it was making news when they did.

Whether or not George Owen wore a helmet as a pro hockey player during his rookie season in 1928-29, he definitely wore one during the 1930 NHL playoffs — but so did his Boston defensemates Lionel Hitchman and Eddie Shore. Hitchman, in fact, had already worn a helmet in the regular-season finale to protect a broken jaw, and the article below from the Montreal Gazette on March 20, 1930, mentions that Shore “has worn a headgear in the past.”

Bruins

During the Bruins’ rough opening-round series against the Montreal Maroons, John Hallahan of The Boston Globe noted that “Owen had a brand new one on that made him look something like a halfback.” If it was brand new, perhaps he’d been wearing an older helmet previously? If so, I’ve yet to see that story. And, if Moose Johnson was wearing a helmet during the 1914-15 season, he may well have been the first pro hockey player ever to wear one. But how come?

A brief search through old newspapers turned up the fact that Johnson (like Lionel Hitchman) had suffered a fractured jaw. He was injured either in a practice leading up to, or the pre-game warmup right before, Portland’s first road game of the 1914-15 PCHA season in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 15, 1914. Game stories make it clear that Johnson played for a while with his head bandaged and The Oregon Daily Journal of January 10, 1915, confirms that Johnson had been wearing a helmet in games. Another story from the same paper on January 24 notes that his jaw had finally healed to the point where Johnson might be ready to discard his headgear.

There’s nothing in the papers that claims Moose Johnson was the first pro hockey player to wear a helmet, but he was certainly wearing one long before George Owen. Admittedly, I’m not sure how a helmet that sits on top of your head protects the jaw on the bottom of your head — although I suppose the ear flaps on a football-style helmet help. But what I found most interesting of all was that sportswriters were already taking shots at the relative toughness (or lack-there-of) of baseball players versus hockey players as long ago as 1915, as this Oregon Daily Journal clipping from the January 10, 1915 edition confirms…

story

11 thoughts on “Hockey Helmet History

  1. Good stuff Eric.
    Great job in tracking down more information. It is always a challenge when one says something is the first.
    FYI….after the photo appeared in the SIHR Bulletin, a member with really good eyes indicated that the photo is actually reversed and should be flipped. The “P” on the sweaters is backwards. Checking various sources the photo always appears as shown and even the number in the bottom right corner makes one think that it’s correct.
    I look forward to visiting with you in Windsor next week.
    Safe travels.

  2. Great research Eric. It’s amazing to see how cavalier hockey players were in general when it came to protecting their own heads.

  3. Because I read so much of your writing before it was printed, I thought I knew everything. But I knew nothing of today’s story.
    But I think I remember years ago that you had an old football helmet that looked very similar to the one in the picture, that looked like a winter hat to me. Am I correct?

  4. Thanks for the read Eric! You have a gift for making history fun – no matter what the subject I’m sure!

  5. Great post Eric! I always learn something when I read your blog. And you know when you do not want to do something you are pretty darn cute about it!!!
    I think of you as “The Reluctant Participant”……in a funny way…..(Please don’t make me shlep Sherri-Ellen to IGA for potato chips…..)
    Sincerely, Sherri-Ellen T-D.

  6. Hi Eric, my grandfather was Jack Culhane and he wore a helmet while playing hockey at Boston College in at least his senior year. The previous summer he was hit in the head by a pitched ball while playing a game in Livermore Falls, Maine and required surgery.

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