Hockey has been a staple winter sport since the early 19th century. The first recorded indoor game took place on March 3, 1875, in Montreal, and the game only grew from there, being included in the winter Olympics and drawing in thousands of fans to games every year. The equipment we see players wearing today, however, is far different from what players wore when the game first came around. Hockey gear evolved slowly but surely, likely in ways that the first players wouldn’t recognize.
In 1875, hockey players didn’t have quality equipment to speak about. Their sticks were wooden boards, the puck was either made of wood or a rubber ball cut to be flat, and their skates were simply blades attached to the bottom of their boots. They would wear clothes that protected them from the cold, but nothing to protect them from physical injuries. In the 1880s, some players would tie cane or wood around their shins with bits of leather, making the first make-shift shinguards, and during the 1896 Stanley Cup, Winnipeg Victorias goaltender George Merritt used cricket pads to form the first leg pads. These gave him confidence and led the Victorias to victory that year.
The 1900s brought more seriousness toward hockey gear, though it was mainly left in the hands of the players themselves. Fred “Cyclone” Taylor sewed scrap pieces of felt into his undershirt, going over his shoulders and down his back to make the first back and shoulder pads. Soon knee pads were sewn together with shin pads, while padding and, in some cases, bamboo were added to gloves for higher protection and reinforcement.
In the 1930s, Eddie Shore became the first player to consistently wear a helmet while playing due to a head injury, though the trend didn’t catch on until the 70s, and after Babe Siebert broke his thumb, reinforced fiber gloves became common for the sport. Leather protection came about for elbows and forearms as well, since they commonly became injured from colliding with ice and other players.
Goaltenders didn’t consistently wear masks until 1959 when a goalie suffered an injury to his nose and cheek, and though it was looked down on at first it was soon implemented across the entire league. The last goalie not to wear a mask was in 1979. Equipment started being made with plastic and fiberglass; however, though it helped to better protect the wearer, it seriously injured anyone who collided with that person. The gear was covered with cushioning to ease any impact, coinciding with a rule that banned the intentional use of elbows to injure opposing players.
In 1958, all hockey gear had to be approved by the National Hockey League (NHL) before being used to ensure everyone’s safety. Shin guards wrapped around the entire leg to protect from injuries caused by ice skates, and any player who signed a contract after 1979 was required to wear a helmet while playing. New gloves were developed with shorter cuffs for more moveability, and elbow pads extended further down the arm to make up for what the gloves no longer protected. A new pant system was created in the 1980s that was both lightweight and offered further protection to players, and in 2007 Reebok and the NHL released a new uniform system with four different fabrics to not only be lightweight, but also keep players dry while on the ice.
Hockey gear has evolved drastically since 1875, but all variations kept the same goal in mind: to keep players safe. New technology will likely only encourage more changes in gear, and as seen in its history, hockey gear will only evolve for the better.