1958-59 Topps #43 – Charlie Burns
Paging through a binder of old hockey cards, this one of Charlie Burns–donning a helmet–sticks out like a sore thumb. Of course, he must have really stood out on the ice during his rookie season of 1958-59. Back then, Burns was the only NHL player to wear a helmet.
Burns sustained a head injury while playing junior hockey, resulting in a fractured skull. Surgery was performed and a metal plate was inserted into his head. From that point forward, Burns wore a helmet in games and in practices until he retired in 1974.
The backside of the card notes both his injury and his status as the league’s only helmeted player. The biography paragraph mentions that “he’s in comeback after severe skull injury.”
The cartoon, though, is ridiculous–and perhaps a bit insulting–as it shows a helmet-wearing player ramming another player in the midsection. Burns was not a reckless player, so the cartoonist was going for a cheap laugh. Mind you, this was during a time when even goalies didn’t wear masks and anyone wearing a helmet was usually considered soft.
Burns didn’t seem to mind the helmet, though. The photo above is obviously a posed portrait, so he easily could have removed his headgear before smiling for the photographer. But he chose to leave it on. A few of his other early cards show him posing while wearing a helmet.
Burns enjoyed a 16-year professional career–including 11 seasons in the NHL–all while wearing a helmet. Although he probably wouldn’t have worn it if he didn’t need to, he was a trailblazer nonetheless. By the time he retired in 1974, other players were starting to follow Burns’ lead and take a greater interest in their own safety on the ice.