When a modern NHL team takes to the ice these days, the players look like gladiators preparing for battle inside a frozen arena. Each man is enveloped in a layer of protective gear from head to toe, the focal point of which is their large colorful sweater. They skate around the ice for sixty minutes, bouncing off the boards and bashing into each other while chasing after a puck made from vulcanized black rubber. Their high-tech helmets, shoulder pads/chest protectors, elbow pads, protective gloves, mouth guards, heavily padded shorts, shin pads, and neck guards are a far cry from the gear that players of the past wore and is a result of decades of tinkering and improvement.
According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, the first organized ice hockey game took place in Montreal in 1875. The players then had rudimentary skates strapped to leather boots and wooden hockey sticks, and they played with a wooden puck. They donned heavy woolen turtleneck sweaters, football pants, knee-high socks, and gloves to stay warm, with no other gear.
As the game evolved and grew more popular, the players started to add the equipment that is so common nowadays. The first thing to show up was homemade shin guards constructed from strips of leather reinforced with wood, which appeared in the 1880s. Not long after, goaltenders started strapping on cricket pads to protect them from flying pucks.
they sport a "fight strap" that connects the sweater to the inside of a player's pants to prevent an opponent from pulling the sweater up over someone's head during a fight.
By the turn of the century, the evolution of equipment had started to speed up, primarily due to innovations incorporated after player injuries. Elbow pads came into existence due to the many broken elbows from falls, and gloves began to feature padding and reinforced wrist guards to protect players from flying pucks and spills. Knee-high padded pants held up by suspenders came into fashion during these years, and a version of them is still in use today.
It took an infamous incident during a 1933 game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins for the idea of helmets to enter the scene. That was when one player, Ace Bailey, almost died after banging his head on the ice after being checked by Eddie Shore from behind. Bailey never played in the NHL again, and Shore wore a helmet for the rest of his career, something the NHL eventually mandated for all players in 1979. But it wasn’t until 1959 when Montreal Canadians goaltender Jacques Plante refused to return to the ice after catching a puck to the face during a game that the idea of the netminder wearing a protective mask started to happen. Over the next sixty-plus years, the basic fiberglass mask that goaltenders wore from that day has evolved. Gone are the face-hugging masks that have become a favorite horror movie prop. Nowadays, players wear hybrid masks with metal cages and elaborate artwork covering the surfaces.
people started calling them jerseys instead of sweaters, igniting a debate that still rages today.
In the years following World War II, when hockey’s popularity boomed with the advent of television, all of the gear in the NHL began to be brought under one set of standards. The use of new materials like plastics and fiberglass allowed the weight to be reduced, while new protocols ensured that any equipment worn had to be safe for both the wearer and their opponents.
Perhaps no other part of a hockey player’s kit is more iconic and controversial than their sweater. This barely changed for almost a century except for growing larger to accommodate all the gear that players have to strap on before hitting the ice. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ‘80s that the sweater underwent several innovations that have led to what we see today. Lightweight fabrics were introduced, resulting in brighter colors, more breathability, and better movement. With these changes, people started calling them jerseys instead of sweaters, igniting a debate that still rages today. Purists call it heresy, especially Canadians, while many younger fans have adopted the new moniker. Regardless of their name, they sport a “fight strap” that connects the sweater to the inside of a player’s pants to prevent an opponent from pulling the sweater up over someone’s head during a fight.
As a player slices and dices his way forward through traffic on skates designed just for hockey, maneuvering the puck through the traffic, his clothing and gear are there to keep him safe. While past players would be shocked to see how far their game has come, they surely would understand the need for each item utilized today.