Can you name an essential element of the game of hockey that most fans often see right through? It's the protective glass that surrounds the rink on top of the boards. It's not something most fans often think about, but the protective glass in hockey serves a number of functions.
Here is a quick look at how protective hockey glass has changed over the years, the purpose it serves, and what the future may hold.
Purpose of Hockey Glass
The glass around the boards at hockey rinks serves a few different purposes. First, it helps keep the game flowing by keeping the puck in the ice area.
The more important purpose, of course, is it protects fans from getting blasted in the face with a puck. Also, the transparency of the glass allows fans to enjoy the game without seriously obstructing their view.
Hockey Glass History
In the very old days, most of the first half of the 20th century, NHL rinks weren't surrounded by glass, but rather chicken wire. This helped allow fans sitting near the boards to see, while also protecting them from an errant puck.
This posed a few problems, of course. First, watching a game through chicken wire is much harder than watching it through glass. Also, as former NHL referee Bill Chadwick told The New York Times, if he sat near the boards too long in those days — particularly in Chicago during a Blackhawks game — fans were likely to poke him with objects such as hatpins.
Chicken wire was used until the early to mid-1940s before the transition to the "glass" we know today was made. While it's commonly called glass, it's really actually made of acrylic or some other durable substance.
More Recent History
Various iterations of glass have been used in the NHL, and in the late 1990s the league went to a "seamless" system that in theory helped fans see the game better. That may have improved the game slightly for those watching the game, but the players didn't like it. Most complained the seamless glass felt like running into a brick wall, and it was even blamed for causing players to suffer concussions.
Seamless tempered glass systems were used until fairly recently, when the concern over concussions grew even further. The league required teams to transition to a safer "plexiglass" system by the beginning of the 2011-12 season.
Protective Glass Today
In today's game, the protective glass is generally safe for the players, but it's not completely without issues. For example, just this past season a game between Colorado and Anaheim endured a lengthy delay when a hard shot cracked one of the panels.
Also, a few years ago a panel of glass in Florida was replaced by one that fans couldn't even see through.
What the Future Holds
Plexiglass is a term that became the common word for acrylic glass panels from the brand name Plexiglas (similar to calling a tissue a Kleenex). Acrylic seems to get the job done, but there is evidence that polycarbonate boards would offer more flexibility without occasionally breaking like acrylic does.
That said, polycarbonate panels cause serious optic distortion, meaning fans would have trouble seeing the game. Until a version that's completely transparent is developed, it's likely the NHL will stick with what it has now.
In the end, the next time you're banging on the glass after a big hit at a Blackhawks game, remember what you're actually banging on. The protective glass is often overlooked, but it's a crucial part.
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