Research That Matters: Examining the Findings of a Virginia Tech Hockey Study

I can only recall one time when a family conversation centered on an academic research study.

This Spring, a Virginia Tech study examined hockey helmets using a methodology developed at nearby Virginia Tech’s bioengineering lab. As parents to two teenage travel ice hockey players, my husband Joe and I paid attention to these findings and discussed media reports that summarized the report, its methods, and its STAR rating given to hockey helmets.

My husband, an engineer by degree and thought process, questioned the findings as he interpreted them from early media reports. He believed strongly that he purchased quality helmets for our teenagers, even though their Bauer helmets did not receive top ratings in this study.

Rather than debate his interpretation of the media’s explanation, I suggested that he read the actual study instead. I found the report title in media reports, selected a link to the entire PDF on Google Scholar, printed all 15 pages, and handed them to Joe to read over his morning coffee.

This report, entitled Hockey STAR: A Methodology for Assessing the Biomechanical Performance of Hockey Helmets, may be of interest to the members of my hockey family, as well.

I didn’t need researchers Rowson, Rowson, and Duma, who citing several previous studies, to tell me that, “concussion has gained national attention and become a research priority as the incidence of injury rises and concerns about the long-term effects of repeated mild injury are brought to light” (p. 2429). As parents, Joe and I are cognizant of the injury potential to our student athletes and ensure they wear required equipment that fits properly. That’s why this helmet study caught our attention and prompted us to look further into its conclusions.

According to the Virginia Tech hockey helmet study, concussions occur more in ice hockey than football (Rowson, Rowson, & Duma, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a previous head injury study by Hootman, Dick, & Agel). The national hockey organization USA Hockey disagrees. Its Chief Medical and Safety Officer Dr. Stuart responded to this study by cited a previous concussion study in the organization’s response to the study, “A descriptive epidemiology study of United States high schools for 20 sports during 2008-2010 found that football had the highest concussion rate (6.4), followed by boys’ ice hockey (5.4) and boys’ lacrosse (4.0) (para. 3). This parent’s bottom line: concussions are serious injuries, whether they occur more in football or ice hockey.

The Virginia Tech helmet study compared two CCM hockey helmets and one football helmet in 12 impact tests using a nifty impact pendulum device in its bio-engineering lab. As you can see in Figure 1, helmets were placed on a synthetic head supported by a “neck” within a limited degree of movement. After cheering for my boys in hundreds of games over seven years, I’m not convinced these lab tests accurately replicate hockey sports injuries.

Here’s a photo of David’s teammate to illustrate my point. This bantam (ages 13 and 14) player is getting checked from behind, an illegal hit that immediately drew a 12-minute penalty. I’m not convinced the study examined this head position for potential injury.

Tyler gets checked from behind

David’s teammate gets checked from behind

Important take-aways from this study include:

  • The Hockey STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) system does not definitely prove that one helmet will prevent or reduce head injury risks of concussion over another one, as Stuart noted. The researchers acknowledged that an “individual’s risk of concussion may vary with a number of factors such as prior history of head injury or genetic predispositions” (p. 2441).
  • Only two helmets were tested. “Given that there are 32 helmets currently on the market, a total of 1536 tests are required to evaluate all hockey helmets using the proposed protocol,” (p. 2438). Joe told me he routinely buys Bauer over CCM and Easton helmets for our boys, based on his own research, reviews, and individual fit. I wish the researchers had conducted tests with more than two hockey helmets made by the same company.
  • Hockey STAR tests were conducted without facemasks. “Testing in the lab demonstrated that the facemask does not significantly affect either linear or rotational head acceleration, with differences less than 2%. This suggests that hockey helmet performance is not influenced by the presence of a facemask, and that testing with and without facemasks is not necessary” (p. 2438). I would be happy to offer the perspectives of several goaltender moms who would vehemently disagree with that statement.
  • Hockey STAR is only one testing methodology. Only helmets already evaluated by the Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC) and different criteria were used.

Ice hockey is an exciting, fast, physical contact sport. As a team manager, I know that USA Hockey has increased head-injury penalties, which graduate up to sport expulsion for aggravated repeat offenders. Our club’s coaches use the American Development Model that teaches controlled gives and receipts of physical contact. Regardless, it’s a challenging sport with risks, and parents and players both accept responsibility for ensuring fair play and proper equipment.

The opinions reflect in this article reflect only those of the author.

References

Marar, M. I., McIlvain, N. M., Fields, S. K., and Comstock, R.D. (2012, April). Epidemiology of concussions among United States high school athletes in 20 sports. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 40(4). 747-755. doi: 10.1177/0363546511435626

Rowson, B., Rowson, S., and Duma, S.M. (2015, October). Hockey STAR: A methodology for assessing the biomechanical performance of hockey helmets. Annals of Biomedical Engineering, 43(10). 2429-2443. doi: 10.1007/s10439-015-1278-7

Stuart, M. J. (2015, March 31). USA Hockey comments on VTU hockey helmet rating system. Retrieved from http://www.usahockey.com/news_article/show/498353?referrer_id=908034

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