The devolution of the modern hurler’s protective headwear
We take a look inside the unusual and eccentric world of hurling helmets, where vintage Canadian-made products remain the most fashionable and preferred choice today, despite healthy and safety concerns and the fact that they were first introduced here around 50 years ago.
Hurling is surely the only competitive game on earth where protective head-gear is required, and where the fashion trend is to continue to seek, source and brandish the oldest, most vintage pieces on offer, so old that they were designed across the Atlantic for two entirely different sports altogether.
Many are now familiar with the origin of the helmet in hurling. The year is 1969 – it’s an era of fiercely contested third level hurling, and UCD are taking on UCC in Croke Park. UCC midfielder Micheál Murphy is sporting an ice-hockey helmet, having been sent one over from Canada by a former classmate, to much fanfare and bemusement around the ground. A few months later, Donal Clifford, himself a fellow UCC man, takes the field wearing another ice-hockey helmet during Cork’s NHL semi-final against Tipperary, and becomes the first inter-county player to do so in the process.
The Canadian Connection
Hockey and skateboard helmet-manufacturer, Canadian based company Cooper of Canada (estd. 1971) could hardly have expected that their product would become so popular in a small land many miles across the Atlantic. It’s harder still to grasp the concept that the helmets are still, in 2019, more popular than ever, and the original Canadian-made models have become very rare and will fetch a fair price, typically through online classified ad sites.
In terms of the originals, Canadian-made lids (no longer in production in the motherland, sadly) became hugely popular from the 70s onward, and were imported in record numbers. The firm, which specialised in ice-hockey equipment of all types, was dissolved in 1990 and bought by Bauer Hockey, which was itself acquired by Nike in 1995. These helmets have then been passed down through generations, and since they are no longer produced in their homeland, their value and prestige has grown tenfold. What’s rare is wonderful, etc..
The Extended Cooper Family
Many different strands of the Cooper helmet have been created, but all retained the same shape. An infamous and now synonymous shape, both in junior and senior size. Light, potentially not all that protective, but universally accepted as the most stylish and comfortable ever offered. There have been Gola Helmets, a separate company to Cooper but nonetheless a sought after product, produced in Canada for the same purposes. Skateboarders, Rollerboarders, Mastercrafts, FreeFormers, Hobies and Flyer Landsurfers are all different models that came out of the Cooper production line. Jofa and Candien are other brands that came from Canada, sported famously by Galway full-back, Dáithi Burke. Generally white in colour, these fetch a lower price value than their other Canadian relations, but are still difficult to come by.
Within the Cooper brand, there have been a few different designs too. The original is the SK100, the most common and recognisable. It came available in a plethora of famous colours, including green, black, white, blue, yellow and red. The SH100 was different in that it had black, instead of white ear pieces, which were also more flexible than those of the SK100. It was also only available in black or white. The SK120 was another version that altered the style slightly of the helmet, with flexible white ear pieces, and was not nearly as popular as earlier versions.
Difficult to attain, beautifully elegant when finished correctly. Such is the demand, there are plenty lads out there who make a few bob from cleaning up lids, stitching/restitching, putting in fresh padding and ear pieces. It’s a bizarre industry – in what other game would you have the majority of your playing cohort coveting an antique to protect their head from flying sliotars and hurleys?
The faceguard is another product that has seen a revolution, with more and more modern suppliers appearing. The quality varies, many will argue, shocker, that the traditional old-style Gerry Cleere “Kilkenny” style face-guard will always be the best, and, once again, these are difficult to locate. Thurles guards are preferred traditionally by Tipperary players, among others, sporting an elongated look around the upper areas of the guard, and a wider face in general. Rarer still is the famed “DJ” guard – a unique piece that is straight cut, and doesn’t overlap the helmet at all. Sported by the man himself, DJ Carey, for several seasons, it’s a statement piece. The recent fashion trend is made up of narrow-hinge Kilkenny style guards, which feat snugly around the helmet, produced largely by Brian Murphy hurls.
The modern day offerings
It is natural that since the original Canadian versions are no longer produced, that an Irish entrepreneur would seize the initiative, such is the country-wide appreciation of the model. The Irish branch of the Cooper company began producing the SK100 and recently, their own design, the SK109. Both are now compliant with GAA regulation, and have been available for some years now, popular with club and inter-county players alike.
Recently, replica Gola helmets have begun to surface, though these are not certified, similar to the original ice-hockey helmets.
Mycro occupies a solid segment of the hurling helmet market, worn by many top inter-county stars. It has become popular to customise them with Kilkenny-style faceguards, though this has insurance implications should an injury occur, as it counts as interference with the helmet. The price of fashion, it appears, is a cost that people are willing to pay in all aspects of society. They’ve come from the infamous bucket-style helmets of old, to neat, customisable, colourful pieces, and are an obvious choice for the practically conscious, yet not entirely unstylish, modern hurler.
Other popular, approved brands of late include Azzurri, O’Neills, Marc and Atak. Some are more favoured than others, although ultimately it has proven very difficult to match the original Cooper-style clogad in terms of weight, fit, shape and material, probably due to safety concerns. The same can be said of the faceguards, which are deemed unfit from an insurance perspective.
Even Lidl gave cracking the market a shot in 2008, but their discounted helmets were deemed unsafe and taken off shelves fairly rapidly.
In most facets of life, trends come and go, from the extreme to the more mainstream. It appears as though in hurling circles, regardless of the level, the older models will remain the most sought after. Their availability continues to decline, and perhaps it is only a matter of time before the more modern models begin to take centre stage. Time will tell.
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