Making Hockey Safer with Material Science

Innovative group effort hopes to “Rethink the Rink” to increase hockey player safety.

Whether a hockey lover or novice when it comes to sports, few people would deny that hockey makes the top five—or possibly first or second place depending on who you ask—high-risk sports. Its uniqueness makes it an impressive sport. Players must display skills of speed, power, agility, balance and teamwork all while gliding on ice.

But, simply put, trying to hit a small black puck with a long wooden stick amidst 11 other players all while staying upright on ice poses plenty of potential for injury. Add in the fact that all this takes place in a rink surrounded by short walls and acrylic glass panels, and it’s no surprise that player safety is a top priority. That is exactly why the Pittsburgh Penguins created an innovative partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering and Covestro.

“Players are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before, and so our challenge is to find new ways to keep them safer and reduce injuries,” said David Morehouse, Penguins CEO and president. “This collaboration with Covestro and Carnegie Mellon is a specific attempt to use recent advances in material science to address the physical boundary that surrounds a hockey rink. Can we come up with a material solution that reduces the impact of players hitting the boards and makes the game safer for players of all ages?”

“Rethink the Think” aims to enhance hockey safety by using different materials for the surrounding boards. (Image courtesy of Athletica Sports Systems.)

“Rethink the Rink” aims to enhance hockey safety by using different materials for the surrounding boards. (Image courtesy of Athletica Sports Systems.)

“Rethink the Rink” is a unique project seeking to finding safety solutions by harnessing and combining the power of technology and young, bright minds. Students will have access to experts and material technologies as they find ways to enhance safety in the sport without affecting game performance.

The group’s first focus was on a redesign of the rink surrounding. A “make-a-thon” was held March 12 to 16 at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering. The interactive event brought together five teams of students to design and develop prototypes for testing. Besides striving to find a safety solution, the teams had to ensure their designs did not affect how hockey pucks bounced off them. The 25 students involved came prepared: Prior to the event, they attended briefings on the history of hockey rinks, technology used and common injuries in the sport. They also learned about the properties of the various materials available.

The goal is for these prototypes to be submitted to experts at the NHL and USA Hockey for feedback. Testing could then be conducted by amateur players at the FedEx Rink at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, Pa. If testing is successful, the “Rethink the Rink” team plans to delve deeper in how different materials could enhance safety in other areas of play, including equipment and rink construction.

The hockey arena isn’t the only place engineers are working to improve player safety. Check out Reducing Sports-Related Concussions One Tackle at a Time.