Mark Messier was all hard edges when he was the star of the National Hockey League, strong, rough-hewn, and looking all but invincible.
But the man who captained both the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Rangers to Stanley Cups had his points of vulnerability. He was "devastated" by concussions that ended the careers of teammates.
Jeff Beukeboom was a 6-foot-5 hard-rock defenceman who patrolled the Madison Square Garden blueline like a bulldozer. Mike Richter was the best U.S.-born goalie to play the game. Both were part of Messier's Rangers team that ended New York's Stanley Cup drought in 1994.
But both teammates retired early because of serious concussions that affected not only their sport careers but their lives.
"Mike Richter had small children but couldn't even pick up his own baby for the longest time without feeling dizziness and nausea. Jeff suffered depressions," Messier said in an interview.
Beukeboom also suffered headaches and memory loss. It was all because of concussions, Messier said.
"When you see close friends of yours hurt to that degree, you wonder what could have been done. Mike Richter still can't lift any weights. If he gets his heart rate up, he feels sick."
Messier is piloting a helmet project for a Cascade Sports - a U.S.-based sports equipment manufacturer with a new technology which the company claims will reduce the possibility of concussions.
His interest is born of his own experience, he said.
Messier doesn't know how often he suffered concussions in his long NHL career that took him from Edmonton to New York, to Vancouver and back to New York.
"I don't know how many times I was actually concussed. I know I was knocked out a few times and dazed several times, but I was able to get back and play. That's not the case for everyone."
He said people have to realize that "hockey is a dangerous game," by the very nature of the speed, passion and hard surfaces that a player encounters.
"I think hockey players are 25 times more likely to have a concussion than a football player. I think that because of the speed and number of plays that take place. ... In football, sometimes the clock runs down between plays, when the players are standing still and there can't be any collisions. In hockey, the clock only moves when there's action."
The helmet technology is called Seven Technology, based upon the structure of a new liner inside the plastic helmet shell. The force of an impact is displaced laterally by clusters of cylindrical shock absorbers which spring back into shape after the hit. The currently-approved foam liners in helmets actually compress slightly on each impact, meaning that with successive knocks, they provide less protection for the head.
According to the company's statistics, by the time a helmet is going through its third impact, the new technology liner gives 140 per cent more protection than current helmets.
It all makes sense to Messier, who says much still has to be learned about concussions.
"Toward the end of my career, much more was known about concussions than when I started. We didn't know very much. When you have a fractured bone, you knew it healed in six weeks. But we had no idea how long it would take for an injured brain.
"They came up with a baseline testing, to give some indication of how the recuperation was going and when you might be close to coming back. It's valuable, when you have some idea."
NHL players have missed an average of 639 games a season because of concussions, and that kind of number at the top is damaging the game at its roots, says Emile Therien, past president of the Canadian Safety Council and father of former Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Chris Therien, who also suffered a serious concussion.
"The NHL is one thing, but my concern is what you'll see in minor and junior hockey. I think Canadians will back away from the game of hockey," the senior Therien said in a phone interview from New Jersey.
"The game of hockey as we know it now won't exist in 10 years. Parents will see how many concussions there are and they'll ask the same questions they did in the 1970s, when 70 kids lost an eye playing hockey. We had to come up with something that would make the game safe and we came up with mandatory facial protection. But if we don't do something about concussions, [they]could wind up being the first step toward Alzheimer's.
"We're in a real crisis," said Therien, who pinned part of the rash of serious head injuries on the introduction of bodychecking in competitive hockey before the ages of 15 and 17.
Messier agreed that he sees "kids dropping out of the sport and enrolment not as high as it should be." The enrolment in Hockey Canada sanctioned teams is about 550,000. That's down more than 200,000 from its peak.
One of the solutions to cutting back concussions that Messier proposes is a "softer environment" for the game - boards and glass that aren't so rigid and player pads on shoulders, elbows and knees that aren't so inflexible when a players run into each other at full tilt.
"The WWE wouldn't perform on a concrete floor," Messier mused.
The most important thing, he said, is to protect the players.
Technology for helmets is one thing that has advanced very little, while millions of dollars have gone into making sticks lighter and skates faster, he said.
"Today's helmet was not designed to stop concussions, it was designed to stop catastrophic injury," he said.
"Helmets haven't developed for a number of reasons. We became vain, we were only willing to wear helmets of a certain size. There was room for about one inch of foam. ... Anyone can make a helmet safer by making the helmet bigger, but Cascade has been able to make it safer within that parameter with the new technology. I don't think we'll take away concussions completely, but we can limit them with better helmets."
Helmets head to head
Equipment makers are using new technologies to make head gear better
Expanded polypropylene (EPP) or "concussion" foam is currently the most protective of all hockey helmet padding, but it loses its protective abilities after multiple impacts.
A new helmet design has a radically different approach to protection by using a tubular design, dubbed "Seven Element". The designers claim performance is 140% better than EPP in multiple impacts.
80% compression means it absorbs more impact energy.
Head injuries in hockey
- The proof: NHLer's condition linked to concussions at time of death
- The man: Reggie Fleming's story
- Video: Reggie Fleming interview
- Usual Suspects: Fleming's diagnosis should serve as wakeup call
- Brain damage: Building a better helmet
- Staring early: Minor hockey gets serious about safety
- Graphic: Anatomy of a concussion