Toughness, performance, durability. All characteristics that sum up Mark Messier’s 25-year NHL career.
They can also be used to describe the six-time Stanley Cup champion’s latest endeavor that he hopes will reduce the number of concussions sustained by players from Peewees to professionals.
Messier has teamed up with Cascade Sports to launch The Messier Project, a product development and public awareness campaign that aims to address the issue of concussions in hockey.
Since retiring from the game in 2004, Messier has been looking for ways to give back to the game that gave him so much by coaching youth teams and spearheading the Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Hockey Leadership award.
“I love watching the kids, I love their passion for the game and their eagerness to learn,” said Messier. “For me it’s a great way to share some of the experiences and the education that I had as a player and give a little bit back.”
And giving back means making the game safer. In his 25 NHL seasons, Messier saw firsthand the ravages that a concussion can have on a player. Now a father and a youth hockey coach, Messier has made it his mission to change not only the design of the helmet but to change the way players and parents think about their helmet choices.
“Unfortunately in hockey our mindset is that the mirror test is the most important thing. So changing that culture will be a challenge,” he said.
“We’ll spend a couple hundred dollars on a couple of sticks, and the kid will get mad because he didn’t score and slam it across the post and break the stick. Or we’ll buy new skates every year. When it gets down to the helmet, [players and parents] are hedging on whether to buy the $120 helmet or the $90 helmet. That psychology and culture have to change.”
The Messier Project is not just some fancy sales pitch, and it’s not Messier’s style to simply be a figurehead in this effort. He has been hands-on, working with engineers to design a helmet that he would have worn as a player.
What sets the Cascade helmet apart from the competition, Messier said, is a waffle-cone liner system that displaces the impact throughout the helmet, and is able to return to its original shape quickly to guard against multiple impacts.
“The biggest problem that we’ve had as players is that there have been no alternatives. Basically every helmet has the same insert in it,” said Messier, who basically wore the same helmet for most of his career. “It might look different, but it has the same insides to it.”
To reach the grassroots level, Messier plans on starting at the top. He’s already met with NHL trainers and equipment managers, and plans on making the rounds when training camps open in mid-September.
“Every kid who plays hockey watches the game on TV and knows exactly what the players are wearing, so getting NHL players into it is definitely the first step,” he said.
Equally important is changing the mindset associated with concussions. Even a player as tough as Messier advocates more education for players, parents and coaches, as well as more stringent return-to-play guidelines.
“Nobody likes to see a young child get hurt, especially when they’re playing a sport that is supposed to be fun,” he said. “It’s really an education. We have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way as well.”