I Can't Believe It's Science

Do you ever see an in-depth academic study of something so incredibly obvious and think, 'Why does anyone need to bother with scientifically proving that?'. I'll tell you why. Because of day's like today, my friend.

With the NCAA considering making the switch from full face masks to half-shields, there seems to be some debate about how much full facial protection actually protects hockey players. I guess having the word 'protect' right in the middle of it wasn't enough of a tip-off. Anyway, there's this theory out there that college hockey players would be safer if they went to half-shields because players would play with more respect for each other and keep their sticks down more, and that half-shields would provide better protection towards concussions.

So what do peer-reviewed scientific studies have to say on the matter?

The Mayo Clinic published a study in 2002 that looked at 282 elite amateur ice hockey players. Their findings:

This study demonstrates that both full and partial facial protection significantly reduce injuries to the eye and face without increasing neck injuries and concussions.

This study lumped partial face protection and full face protection in together, though the evidence shows a partial face shield is closer to having no protection than full protection. The number of concussions in each case wasn't statistically significant- 4 with none, 5 with half, 2 with full--but the real difference is in facial injuries. 52 injuries with no face protection, 45 with half protection, and only 16 with full protection.

Around that same time, the University of Calgary put out their own study comparing half face shields to full face shields. You can read the evidence if you want, but I'll skip to the juicy part:

CONCLUSIONS: The use of a full face shield compared with half face shield by intercollegiate ice hockey players significantly reduced the playing time lost because of concussion, suggesting that concussion severity may be reduced by the use of a full face shield.

That study came three years after many of the same people at the University of Calgary put together their first look at the half-shield vs. full shield debate. The conclusions of that study:

CONCLUSIONS: These data provide evidence that the use of full face shields is associated with significantly reduced risk of sustaining facial and dental injuries without an increase in the risk of neck injuries, concussions, or other injuries.

The most recent study I found came from The Ohio State University, published just this past December. It appears that they didn't do any original research, but instead just combined the most credible research on the topic and synthesized the results. Their conclusion:

CONCLUSIONS: There is good evidence that FFP reduces the number and risk of overall head and facial injuries in ice hockey compared with PFP and no facial protection. PFP, while not as protective as FFP, appears to offer more risk reduction than no protection.

It should be noted that there was no meaningful difference in protecting concussions, but the extreme increase in other facial injuries made the partial shield much more dangerous.

So there you go. Think about all that time, money, and manpower of some of our brightest minds all spent to prove that wearing safety equipment is safer than not wearing safety equipment. Scientifically speaking, the difference between a full face shield and a half face shield is pretty much nothing. The difference in other facial injuries is very significant, with half-shields being much more dangerous.

I understand the full face shield isn't traditional in most of hockey, but the game has changed quite a bit since those traditions were created. Fifty years ago, players weren't blasting slap shots with specially-engineered one-piece aluminum sticks. Not to mention the difference in size and strength from specialized weight training of those players shooting the puck. Nor were players expected to dive front of those slap shots--notice how quickly coaches shot down taking that out of the game?. It took a horrible tragedy to start the discussion about pro players wearing some kind of protection on their head. I'd prefer to see people around hockey not continue to press their luck with some of the close calls they've had recently and start working towards this change before something tragic happens.

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