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Veteran Calgary college hockey coach says better helmets could prevent head injuries

Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty is wheeled away on a stretcher after taking a hit by Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara on Tuesday, March 8, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

A veteran college hockey coach thinks there might be a simple solution to dealing with the growing problem of headshots and serious injuries in hockey.

Just build a better hockey helmet.

Ken Babey, the athletic director and head coach of the SAIT Polytechnic Trojans in Calgary for the past 24 years, is sick and tired of seeing injuries to athletes from the minors all the way up to the NHL, such as the one that sidelined Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens on March 8.

Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a non-displaced fracture of the fourth vertebra in his neck when he slammed his head into a stanchion at the Bell Centre after a hit from Boston’s Zdeno Chara.

“What I’m seeing as a coach is more and more hits to the side of the head. I think the game is faster, the equipment the guys wear is faster, but really has the helmet changed that much? I’m just throwing that out there as a challenge and say let’s test some and maybe we can come up with something new,” said Babey, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“As a hockey person I think that’s one of the things you can do minimize the impact to the head. With all the rules there’s still going to be hits to the head somewhere and I don’t think the game’s going to slow down.”

Babey has discussed the matter with SAIT’s Applied Research and Innovation Services department, which has done some work with Bobsleigh Canada, to see if it is possible to design a better helmet. He said Hockey Canada has also expressed some interest in discussing the matter.

Babey said the goal would be to design and develop prototypes that can be tested and possibly produced.

“Just from my perspective as a 24-year veteran college hockey coach I see the helmet is maybe a little fancier and a little bit more cushioned than it used to be but it still deals mainly with impact to the front and to the back of the head,” he said.

“It doesn’t really deal as strongly as it might with the side of the helmet and side of the head.”

Babey points to changes in professional football over the past five years where there were new rules put in place and better helmets developed to cut down on injuries.

Hockey commentator Don Cherry told reporters in Calgary last month that regardless of the number of rule changes that the NHL implements there is no guarantee that you will be able to prevent all head injuries.

“You can’t hit a guy straight on and not do something to his head,” said Cherry. “It’s physically impossible. I don’t care who you are.”

The head of SAIT’s Applied Research and Innovation Services agrees there are no guarantees.

“We can take a look at it but I don’t know what the outcome will be,” said Alex Zahavich.

“To say we’re going to build a better hockey helmet — that may not be the solution,” he said.

“It’s very easy to narrow things down quickly and it’s a very dangerous thing to do that because you’re almost suggesting and creating an expectation of a panacea and there ain’t one.”

There was no immediate comment from Hockey Canada.