A Vanderhoof Bear alumnus may have created the first hockey visor.
Ken Clay, defenceman and captain of Vanderhoof’s hockey team in the 1960s, first glued Plexiglas to a hockey helmet after suffering from an eye injury in January of 1964, he said.
“I got a hockey stick in the eye, and I wasn’t wearing a helmet at that time at all,” Clay recalled.
The Vanderhoof Bears were playing against the Prince George Mohawks at the city’s coliseum, and Clay was immediately flown to Vancouver to be hospitalized for a month.
“When they finally let me out, I went down to a sport store, picked up a Cooper helmet, and the only glass I found was Plexiglas,” he explained, referring to a full face shield for goaltenders that was strapped to a headband. “I still wanted to play hockey for awhile…have to protect my other eye.”
Two years later, Clay was awarded the George Allen Trophy as the top defenceman of the Cariboo Hockey League.
“They used to call me the guy with the wraparound windshield,” Clay said.
Former Vanderhoof mayor Len Fox was the team’s goaltender at that time, though he joined the Vanderhoof Bears after Clay’s injury, Fox said.
“Helmets weren’t required; I played goal without a mask,” he explained. “It was limited protection in those years.”
Clay was one of the few, if not the only one, on the team who wore a helmet, though more and more players started to wear head protection in the following decade, Fox recalled.
In 1971, through Fox, Clay’s visor was lent to then 13-year-old Larry Playfair, who played for Vanderhoof’s Peewee hockey team at the time.
Playfair eventually played for the Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings in the NHL, retiring from a 22-year career of professional hockey in 1990.
Though helmets weren’t mandatory for professional players until 1978, they were required for minor hockey participants, and he wanted extra protection after suffering from a broken nose and a broken jaw in separate incidents, Playfair recalled.
“When you were 13 years old, and you go through this, you don’t think anything of it,” he said. “Now looking back…I wished I asked Ken more questions about him doing this and making this and how he came up with it.
“It intrigued me 40 or 50 years later, and I’m appreciative that he allowed me the chance to wear it.”
However, this claim for the original hockey visor is contested by former Toronto Marlboros defenceman Greg Neeld.
As reported by the Toronto Star in 2013, Neeld states that he wore the “first” hockey visor — created by his father, former Air Canada pilot — after a permanent eye injury in December of 1973.
Clay is not looking for a patent, though he would like to be on record for being “the first one to have put it together,” he said.
“I would like that down in the history of hockey…maybe not the Hall of Fame.”