New York Post
October 4, 2023
If not for damaging hits to the head, the career of hockey great Pat LaFontaine might have lasted for at least several more years.
Now the Hockey Hall of Famer — whose heyday spanned the 1980s and ’90s, including stints with the New York Islanders and Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres — has unveiled cutting-edge new helmets, hoping to help other players avoid significant head injuries like his own reported half-dozen concussions.
LaFontaine, 58, has introduced his yearslong endeavor under the umbrella of a company called Valor — offering a new style of hockey helmet designed to address the risk of head injury in the oft-brutal sport.
The Valor Axiom helmet has already been awarded a five-star safety rating by Virginia Tech and is now available for purchase.
“We were always taught you’re not going to get rid of concussions … but now the science can tell you that you can actually minimize some of the damage that’s occurring from some of these hits,” he told The Post. “Valor is all about the evolution of the helmet and its protection capabilities.”
Hockey was quite different during LaFontaine’s time in the sport. During that period, concussion protocols were hardly taken into account, especially compared to the caution observed in the modern game.
“We didn’t know a whole lot about concussions in the 1990s,” LaFontaine, who retired from playing in 1998, told The Post.
There was one night in the mid-’90s, when No. 16 LaFontaine was with Buffalo, that he remembers particularly strongly: He had taken an elbow up high — but played through the rest of the game.
“All I remember was that the next thing was almost like you’re on automatic pilot; you’re just playing but it’s not registering,” LaFontaine said, relating a conversation he had with teammate Craig Muni between periods in the locker room after the hit.
“I said, ‘So, what’s the score?’ I was playing it like everything’s okay. Then I just kind of said, ‘Well, who ended up scoring?’” LaFontaine recalled to The Post. “And that’s when he turned to me. ‘You got the second goal — you scored.’”
The frightening moment was just one of many LaFontaine — who is remembered fondly on Long Island as the “Easter Epic” goal scorer of 1987 — experienced during his 16-year tenure in the league.
As an Islander, he was on the receiving end of another brutal hit, during the 1990 playoffs against the Rangers. The injury caused LaFontaine to be taken off the ice on a stretcher as boos reigned down from the seats at Madison Square Garden.
His many close calls inspired LaFontaine to take action early into his retirement and, by 2004, he began conceptualizing a way to make the game safer through more efficient helmets.
To do so, LaFontaine recruited renowned neurologist Dr. James Kelly, who, in addition to making strides with the brain health of veterans, has treated the hockey center throughout his player career and beyond.
“Largely, the brain is about the consistency of tofu, so if you were to shake it, or perturb it in some way it’s going to move that tissue in a different way than a muscle or joint might,” Kelly told The Post. “So we said, ‘What about that could be eliminated or at least reduced by certain helmet features?”
The answers lay largely in protection against rotational motions, like when a player’s head cranks side to side or nods. Those movements are all too common for puck carriers, who need to keep their head on swivel — as many coaches will yell from the bench.
Kelly said, “That’s one of the things we know that causes a concussion … Those kinds of movements are actually moving the outside of the brain greater distances than the inside. It sets up torque within the organ itself.”
LaFontaine and Kelly tested the Valor helmets against that sort of “rotational force and force application.” They observed that it stood up particularly well to the kind of vulnerable head-whipping that leaves so many players concussion-prone.
“We think, as a result, less brain torque would occur,” Kelly added, noting that the helmet has a dual system to absorb impact. It’s reportedly a trait currently unique to Valor.
“One is for a relatively minor blow; it bounces back and it’s resilient. Then, a really big force would be absorbed by a deeper layer of material,” Kelly said. “If you put those two together, they actually do a better job with the entire gradient of forces from mild to severe than one or the other would by themselves.”
Another specialty of the helmet is that it contains “thicker and more impact-absorbing” material in its back for when players are hit and risk their heads slamming onto the ice.
As for one of the greatest Islanders to ever play, he’s hoping that, thanks to Valor, the next generation of hockey players — from youth to pro — will be afforded the safety that he was not.
“I’d love to have played another three years, maybe five … but, obviously, I had to retire because of concussions and head injuries,” LaFontaine said. “We’re just here to really get the best possible result of how we can have a positive impact in the sport.”