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NHL players, researchers taking hard look at helmets to cut down on concussions

DENVER - The custom-fitted helmet that Colorado Avalanche forward Peter Mueller will wear this season provides peace of mind as much as added protection.

He was so concerned about suffering yet another concussion, Mueller opted for an Easton model that cradles the base of his skull and safeguards the top of his temples.

Mueller, who missed all last season with a head injury, feels safe on the ice—almost.

For all the league has done to crack down on hits to the head, Mueller doesn't think that's going to cut back on concussions that much.

In his mind, stronger and faster players decked out in more protective gear only makes concussion-causing collisions inevitable, no matter how much better the helmets are.

"Let's be real: If you want to take out hits to the head, why are we wearing Terminator-sized shoulder pads?" Mueller said after a recent practice. "If you're coming in with your shoulders and all this padding, it really doesn't matter if you have the best helmet or the weakest helmet."

While he was recovering from his own head injury last year, Mueller watched the likes of Sidney Crosby, Marc Savard and Max Pacioretty go down with concussions, too.

"It was tough to watch," Mueller said.

Researcher Blaine Hoshizaki viewed the horrific hits over and over with a scientific curiosity.

As director of the Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, Hoshizaki simulates in his lab the blows NHL players and their helmets absorb.

With the aid of a crash-test dummy, along with a metal rod to replicate the hits, Hoshizaki recreates a three-dimensional computerized model of the stresses on the brain.

That's what he did with Crosby last January, when the Pittsburgh Penguins star took successive hits that sidelined him for rest of the season.

And when Pacioretty suffered his head injury—along with a fractured vertebra—last March on a check from Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara, Hoshizaki also collected those details to dissect.

Later, in his lab, Hoshizaki compared the two hits.

While Pacioretty's blow appeared much more violent—he hit the stanchion between the benches—the researchers concluded Crosby's hits did more damage to the head.

"When we reconstructed Crosby's hit, it showed rather dramatic brain tissue stress," Hoshizaki said. "If Pacioretty's spine hadn't been displaced, we predicted that he would come back much quicker than Crosby."

Crosby is still on the mend. When he returns to competition, he plans on wearing a similar style Reebok helmet that he's always worn, with no additional padding.

"The helmet wouldn't have really changed a whole lot," Crosby said.

Crosby's right, Hoshizaki said.

Most helmets are designed to do one thing well: Prevent catastrophic head injuries.

And they do.

As for stopping concussions, that's more of a work in progress.

Hoshizaki said that helmets are constructed to shield players from linear impacts, such as when a player falls backward and smacks his head on the ice.

But his research has shown that most concussions occur through what's called angular acceleration, where a player suddenly turns into a big hit. That's what happened to Crosby, who took an abrupt shoulder to the side of the head against Washington on New Year's Day.

In his next game, Crosby was checked into the boards (more of a linear impact but his brain may have been still recovering, Hoshizaki said).

"Can the helmet do better? Yes," said Hoshizaki, whose lab tests around 5,000 impacts a year involving football and hockey helmets, along with those used in Alpine skiing. "But they will never prevent concussions, just help decrease the risk of concussions."

Hall of Famer Mark Messier is doing his part to help remedy the rash of head injuries,partnering with Cascade Sports to create The Messier Project. They've developed a helmet called the "M11," which contains a cutting-edge liner system to more effectively manage energy transfer from a direct impact.

So far, a handful of pro players are donning the helmet, including Minnesota Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who missed most of the 2009-10 season and 20 more games in the 2010-11 season because of lingering post-concussion symptoms.

"I feel confident," Bouchard said. "I feel safe with it."

When he played, Messier didn't give all that much thought to helmets. He wore a Jofa helmet only because Wayne Gretzky did.

Messier's stance changed after a fight with Willi Plett, who landed a punch that split Messier's helmet and gashed his forehead.

"I went into the trainer and said, 'Give me the biggest helmet you have back there,'" Messier said. "At the time, it was a bigger, stronger helmet, but it still didn't have the technology any different than any other helmet.

"We've shown our game has impacts where no helmet will stop all concussions. What we're saying is we have a helmet that's going to greatly reduce the risk of concussions."

Messier hopes players get to the point where they think about helmet selection as much they do sticks or skates.

"That's the sad part: We don't look at the helmet as a high-performance piece of equipment," Messier said. "Staying in the game is the first part of being able to perform at a high level."

___

AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell in Minnesota and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.

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