Photo credit: Bruce Bennett
Concussions have become the topic du jour around the NHL in the last few years, and for very good reason. Nearly a hundred cases of head trauma have been recorded just this season, and with Caps star Nicklas Backstrom missing forty games with concussion the issue has now hit DC fans closer to home. Despite his highly physical style of play, Alex Ovechkin has managed to avoid concussion so far in his career. Still, he hasn’t been ignoring the epidemic, and for several months Ovechkin has been testing Bauer’s new trauma-preventative RE-AKT helmet. It’s now being worn by several other Bauer-sponsored NHL stars, but Ovechkin was the first to agree to test the RE-AKT — even before Backstrom’s incident with Rene Bourque.
We spoke to C.J. Ficek, Bauer’s Product Manager for Helmets to find out more about the helmet and Ovi’s decision to wear it.
The RE-AKT helmet, intended to to provide more comprehensive protection than traditional helmets, has been in development for two years, and goes on sale to the general public in May. Meanwhile, it’s still being validated by Ovechkin and more than a dozen NHLers including Claude Giroux of the Flyers.
“Two years ago, we looked at the industry and said, ‘We’re hearing about this a lot more, there’s got to be a way to produce a helmet that could better protect players,'” Ficek said. “So we set down that path of doing our homework, working a lot with the medical field, understanding head trauma and concussions and what goes into that, and then taking away all that information and trying to design a helmet that helped mitigate those risks.”
“One of those things we found out was about rotational forces — traditional hockey helmets have always been tested for more of a linear impact, a direct impact,” he continued. “We also found out from the medical field that the rotational aspect comes into play, and obviously hockey is a game of speed and motion, players are constantly twisting and turning and whatnot, getting hit from the side, it’s not always a direct impact.”
This is not the large, clunky variety of padded helmet that we’ve seen on other players — and sometimes in other sports — (Matt Bradley’s concussion-proof bucket was described as having “a CIA transmitter up there” by former Cap Brendan Morrison). The RE-AKT is streamlined and lightweight, weighing less than many normal helmets. If you weren’t already aware that Ovechkin was wearing a special helmet, you wouldn’t have noticed.
Ovechkin has been involved with the RE-AKT’s development since the offeseason, when he began negotiating an endorsement deal with Bauer.
“He was at the office and we were in the early stages of the helmet, but we were able to show him and walk him and his agent through the helmet, and what it has to offer,” Ficek said. “He had a chance to try it on and he said, that’s the helmet I want.”
Though several of his teammates have been out of the lineup with head injuries, Ovechkin’s only missed games this season due to suspension, and briefly for a “lower-body” injury. Only a few weeks ago, Ovechkin was involved in a huge collision with teammate Mike Knuble during practice, but though the hit was of the type that has sidelined many players this season, Ovechkin appeared to suffer no ill effects.
“By no means is it foolproof, it doesn’t mean it’s concussion-proof either,” Ficek said. “It just means that we have a solution that can better-protect the players, and it helps manage the impacts better than some of the traditional helmets out there.”
Ficek says feedback on the helmet has initially been very good — Giroux continues to wear it, as well as some of his teammates such as Danny Briere and James van Riemsdyk. Steven Stamkos is also involved, though having a Richard Trophy season has gotten in the way. “Stamkos was an athlete that we spoke with who loves the helmet, but he’s also very superstitious,” Ficek said. “He told us up front ‘hey, I’m on a run right now scoring goals, I’m probably not going to change anything at this point.’ It’s one of those things that when he’s ready, the helmet will be there for him.”
As for Ovechkin’s part, Bauer hopes that having the high-profile Russian star aboard will encourage others to try — and buy — the helmet. “I think Alex obviously is one of the most dynamic players in the NHL, anything he does is always in the limelight,” said Ficek. “Definitely if it creates more exposure, maybe if some of the other athletes, some of the younger players coming into the league see that, they can at least try to understand what it has to offer.”
He added; “It’s a cultural shift, we’re seeing it all the way down at the youth level, we’re seeing more and more head injuries and concussions, at least diagnosed, versus the old days when it was ‘you got your bell rung, get back out there’. We’re starting to see a good push of awareness, which is what we want. At the end of the day it’s all about protecting the players, the kids as well as the NHL players.”
Phone interview by Ian Oland, additional reporting by Chris Gordon.