Mark Messier is on a mission to revolutionize the sport of hockey.
Winner of six Stanley Cups and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, "The Captain" hasn't been content to just sit idly by in his years since retirement and let the sport go where it may. With concussions and post-concussion syndrome reaching epidemic levels in the NHL and hockey across the world Messier has teamed up with Cascade Sports to form the Messier Project, an endeavor to develop technology designed to combat head injuries.
"I was approached by cascade who had developed this new technology called Seven Tech, that would give far better protection than was available at this point," Messier tells SB Nation. "They needed someone that had the experience of playing the game and knew wIhat was demanded of a helmet, which is what I was able to contribute to. Together we came up with the M-11, which has revolutionized the modern day helmet."
According to the Messier Project website over 759 NHL players have been diagnosed with concussions since 1997, with players missing an average of 639 games per season since that time. Hockey has become a fast, hard hitting and dangerous sport, with protective technology not being developed nearly fast enough to keep up with the force of impact hockey players are exposed to each game. A hockey player at 15 years of age hits with the same force as the average football player. NHL players are five times more likely to sustain concussions that players in the NFL, with hits in hockey players taking blows to the head that exceed 100 times the force of gravity.
"I think that that along with the tremendous impact that concussions that are having on the NHL and the youth leagues led me to say maybe this is a way that I can bring some awareness to it and help the sport in general fight against concussions."
The M11 is designed to allow players to withstand these violent impacts without sustaining the head injuries that have become so commonplace the past few years.
"The old helmet was designed to safegaurd against catastrophic injuries, which its done a great job of, but they didn't have the information about concussion back then that we do now," says Messier. "Cascade comes up with this new technology which tremendously reduces the impact to the head. When you combine everything together, the testing and all of the standardizations, it became clear that our helmet was far superior in protection that anything that's been out there before."
What makes the M11 so drastically different than the traditional helmets worn today is the complete overhaul of the design from top to bottom.
Traditional helmets use what is known as a 50/50 shell, two pieces of the helmet that slide back and forth in order to provide a fitting mechanism for the wearer. While this provides an simple (but not so quick) method for players to adjust the size of the helmet, this design never provided the protection that is now needed in hockey. With two shells, impact would cause the two parts to slide over each other, rather than absorbing the force of the impact. The M11 uses a streamlined shell called the Mono 90, one shell that is designed to offer complete protection of the head from impact. The stronger design reduces direct energy transfer at the point of impact directly to the head, instead spreading the force throughout the helmet.
Traditional helmets have also used foam inserts for protection inside the helmet, a rudimentary padding that has provided merely a speed bump for the force that the head takes during impact. Seven Technology, used in the M11 helmets, provides a much stabler and consistent compression in the padded inserts. Instead of a solid foam, these inserts utilize a type of cell-shaped spring that absorbs the force of the impact and releases back in the direction of the hit. This new design instantly provides a much higher level of head protection from direct impacts, reducing the probability of concussions from 75% in traditional style helmets to 33% in the M11. Most impressive however, is the performance of the padding under multiple hits. While the M11 provides just 26% better performance on the first impact, after the third impact the Seven Technology provides 140% better performance over the traditional EPP padding.
As a hockey player myself, I found this new technology impressive. Yet I was never completely sold on this new helmet until given the chance to try one on.
Great padding and a strong, airy outer shell is great but I always found that hockey helmets never fit my head correctly. No matter how tight I might make them by adjusting the outer shells, every helmet I've ever owned has been loose and bounced around on my head. You could have the greatest padding ever produced inside that helmet but it wouldn't matter one bit once a player falls and slams his head into the ice. The head shakes inside the helmet, which doesn't provide any force absorption whatsoever and only acts as another hard surface when the head is hitting at full impact. Mike Smith, Stu Barnes and Simon Gagne have all lost significant time the past few years after suffering from concussions sustained while their helmet was still on.
The M11 is designed to rectify this flaw in traditional helmets. The ProFit design allows players to instantly fit the helmet to their head seamlessly and easily. A slide and notch system on the back of the helmet seemingly "pulls" the helmet tight on the wearer's head from all directions, eliminating pressure points and providing 100% stability on all sides.
Trying on this helmet myself I was amazed at how light, yet secure it was on my head. Even without the chin strap attached, I could shake my head violently without feeling like the helmet would slide off. Even more impressive was that it didn't feel tight, like my skull was being squeezed from all sides.
With such an incredible helmet designed and manufactured, ready to revolutionize head protection in the sport of hockey, Mark Messier and Cascade Sports now set their sights on educating players on the need for new protective gear. Despite all of the changes made in this new helmet Messier and the designers made it a point to keep it as traditional-looking as possible, in order to provide as seamless an integration into the NHL as possible.
"Our helmet is a very traditional-looking helmet on purpose, since hockey is such a traditional game, and we wanted our players to be able to pass the mirror test for themselves, " Messier says. "We wanted them to pick it up and feel it and say to themselves that this helmet is very light and it feels good when they wear it. It's very airy, we purposely made ventilation a big priority especially for those fortunate enough to play in the summer months when it gets extremely hot."
Getting the NHL players comfortable with wearing the helmet by look alone is important, but the biggest challenge is to get colleges, high schools and youth players to embrace the new helmet and learn how important proper protective gear is.
"We knew that the first step was gain access into the NHL and the players because that's what gives any new technology or equipment credibility. That was our main priority, to minimally get five NHL players wearing the helmet this year, introduce and continue to work on the grass roots education of what the Messier Project really stands for. On top of that we've got 50 teams across the country wearing our helmets, most notably Harvard University."
With NHL players on board, the Messier Project will work on educating players across the country on concussion prevention and treatment. Up to 80% of sports-related concussions go unreported, because players don't realize how serious the symptoms they're suffering from are. Concussions in the NHL are becoming more and more frequent, with the number of games lost due to the injury rising by 41% from the 2005-2006 season to 2006-2007. Players need to realize that having a great helmet on your head is one thing, but having it firmly secured at all times is most important. This includes wearing the helmet during fights, something players are reluctant to do.
The M11 is the first step in the process on the long, long road to safety and education, but it's a big step in the right direction. Retailing at $119.99 for a customizable model ($139.99 with a cage), the helmet is affordable, comfortable and revolutionary and truly impressive.
Mark Messier will always be known as the greatest leader to play in the NHL, but it's his actions off the ice that speak to just how much he cares about the sport and the players.
SB Nation is not affiliated with Cascade Sports, the M11 or the Messier Project. We received no equipment or gear in the process of researching this story.
For more information on the Messier Project, the M11 and full diagnostics and diagrams of the technology used, as well as Mark Messier's personal blog, please visit TheMessierProject.com.