BELAND, Jean-Francois (953 Gendron, Ste Therese, Québec J7E 5N2, 5N2, CA)
BELANGER, Guillaume (3553 rue Camus, Terrebonne, Quebec J6Y 0C3, 0C3, CA)
BELAND, Jean-Francois (953 Gendron, Ste Therese, Québec J7E 5N2, 5N2, CA)
|What is claimed is:
1 . A sports helmet, comprising:
a shell including an outer plastic layer and an inner foam layer;
a retention mechanism embedded in the foam layer, the retention mechanism including a plurality of spaced apart rails projecting out of the foam layer; and
an earpiece slidably and removably engaged with the rails.
2. The helmet of claim 1 wherein the outer plastic layer comprises
polycarbonate, and the inner foam layer comprises EPP, wherein the EPP foam is fused or insert molded with the polycarbonate layer.
3. The helmet of claim 1 further comprising an inner plastic layer on an inner surface of the inner foam layer. 4. The helmet of claim 3 wherein the outer and inner plastic layers comprise polycarbonate, and the inner foam layer comprises EPP, wherein the EPP foam is fused or insert molded with the outer and inner polycarbonate layers.
5. The helmet of claim 3 wherein the outer and inner plastic layers each have a thickness of approximately 0.5mm.
6. The helmet of claim 1 wherein each rail includes a first retention feature, and the earpiece includes a corresponding second retention feature at opposed ends of the earpiece, wherein the first retention features engage the second retention features to partially resist sliding movement of the earpiece when the earpiece is in a fully attached position.
7. The helmet of claim 6 wherein the first retention feature comprises an opening in the rail, and the second retention feature comprises a projection from the earpiece that is positioned in the opening when the earpiece is in the fully attached position.
8. The helmet of claim 1 wherein the retention mechanism further includes a plurality of threaded fasteners projecting outwardly from a body of the retention mechanism, wherein the threaded fasteners are positioned in openings in the helmet shell.
9. The helmet of claim 8 wherein the threaded fasteners comprise a metal material, wherein each of the threaded fasteners is over-molded by a plastic projection that is integral with the body of the retention mechanism.
10. The helmet of claim 9 wherein the body of the retention mechanism includes a plurality of arms extending from the plastic projections that aid in resisting rotation of the retention mechanism when screws are threaded into or out of the fasteners.
1 1 . The helmet of claim 1 wherein the retention mechanism further comprises a plurality of ear loop supports including openings through which ear loops may pass.
12. The helmet of claim 1 wherein the retention mechanism further comprises an attachment element projecting out of the foam layer into an interior of the shell, wherein the attachment element is configured for attachment to a fitting element.
13. A sports helmet, comprising:
a shell including an outer plastic layer and an inner foam layer;
a retention mechanism on or in the shell; and
an earpiece engaged with the retention mechanism, wherein the earpiece is removable by hand from the retention mechanism without the aid of a tool or the need to remove components from the helmet. 14. The helmet of claim 13 wherein the shell includes an injection molded lower region, wherein the retention mechanism is integrally molded with the lower region.
15. The helmet of claim 13 wherein the retention mechanism is embedded in the foam layer and includes retention members projecting out of the foam.
16. The helmet of claim 13 wherein one of the earpiece and the retention mechanism includes a plurality of rails, and the other of the earpiece and the retention mechanism includes channels configured to engage the rails, such that the earpiece is slidable onto and off of the retention mechanism.
17. The helmet of claim 13 wherein each rail includes a first retention feature, and each channel includes a corresponding second retention feature, wherein the first retention features engage the second retention features to partially resist sliding movement of the earpiece when the earpiece is in a fully attached position.
18. The helmet of claim 13 further comprising an inner plastic layer on an inner surface of the inner foam layer.
19. A sports helmet, comprising:
means for retaining an earpiece on the shell; and
an earpiece including means for slidably engaging the retaining means such that the earpiece may be removed from the retaining means by sliding it along the retaining means.
 Modern hockey helmets typically include a solid, high density polyethylene shell with internal padding for protecting the wearer's head. Hockey helmets also generally include a fit system to aid in properly fitting a helmet on a wearer. For example, many modern helmets include two-piece shells that are longitudinally movable relative to each other, and an internal lateral fit system, for adjusting the fit of the helmet on the wearer's head. An example of such an adjustable helmet is described in U.S. Patent Application No. 12/191 ,000, filed August 13, 2008, which is incorporated herein by reference.
 Hockey helmets also typically include earpieces for protecting a wearer's ears. In some helmets, these earpieces are attached to the helmet shell via multiple screws, threaded fasteners, and other components such that they are removable (in other helmets, the earpieces are molded as part of the shell and are not removable). Players commonly remove the earpieces to improve the overall comfort of the helmet and to improve communication with other players, coaches, and game officials. To remove the earpieces, players or trainers first need to remove the screws and other components. During this process, the screws, threaded fasteners, or other components frequently fall out of the helmet or into the helmet itself, making the removal process cumbersome.
 A hockey helmet includes earpieces that are readily removable from the helmet without the need for tools or other objects, and without the need to remove screws or other components. Other features and advantages will appear hereinafter.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
 In the drawings, wherein the same reference number indicates the same element throughout the views:
 Fig. 1 is a side-perspective view of a hockey helmet including removable earpieces.
 Fig. 2 is a bottom-perspective view of the helmet shown in Fig. 1 .
 Fig. 3 is a side-perspective view of the removable earpiece and earpiece retention mechanism of the helmet shown in Figs. 1 and 2.
 Fig. 4 is a top-perspective view of the removable earpiece and earpiece retention mechanism shown in Fig. 3.
 Fig. 5 is a rear-perspective view of the removable earpiece and earpiece retention mechanism shown in Figs. 3 and 4.
 Fig. 6 is a rear view of one element of the retention mechanism shown in Figs. 3-5.
 Fig. 7 is a side-perspective view of the helmet shown in Fig. 1 with the earpieces removed.
 Various embodiments of the invention will now be described. The following description provides specific details for a thorough understanding and enabling description of these embodiments. One skilled in the art will understand, however, that the invention may be practiced without many of these details. Additionally, some well- known structures or functions may not be shown or described in detail so as to avoid unnecessarily obscuring the relevant description of the various embodiments.
 The terminology used in the description presented below is intended to be interpreted in its broadest reasonable manner, even though it is being used in conjunction with a detailed description of certain specific embodiments of the invention. Certain terms may even be emphasized below; however, any terminology intended to be interpreted in any restricted manner will be overtly and specifically defined as such in this detailed description section.
 Where the context permits, singular or plural terms may also include the plural or singular term, respectively. Moreover, unless the word "or" is expressly limited to mean only a single item exclusive from the other items in a list of two or more items, then the use of "or" in such a list is to be interpreted as including (a) any single item in the list, (b) all of the items in the list, or (c) any combination of items in the list.
 Turning in detail to the drawings, as shown in Fig. 1 , a hockey helmet 10 includes a shell 12 having a front region 14, side regions 16, a rear region 18, and a crown region 20. As shown in Fig 2., in one embodiment, the shell structure includes a foam layer 22 (or a layer of another suitable impact-absorbing material) sandwiched between a thin plastic outer layer 24 and a thin plastic inner layer 26.
 The foam layer is preferably an expanded polypropylene ("EPP") material but could alternatively be an expanded polyethylene ("EPE") material, or a combination of these materials, or could be any other suitable energy-absorbing material or combination of materials. The thin plastic layers 24, 26 may be made of polycarbonate or another suitable material. The thin plastic layers 24, 26 may each be formed from a single piece of plastic or may be formed from multiple pieces of plastic that are molded together. While other materials may be used, for ease of description, an EPP foam layer 22 sandwiched between two polycarbonate layers 24, 26 will be described herein.
 In one embodiment, the inner polycarbonate layer 26 may be partially or entirely omitted, particularly in a helmet in which a relatively thicker outer layer 24 is used. The inner polycarbonate layer 26, for example, may cover only certain regions of the EPP foam 22, such as the front, rear, and lower side regions of the EPP foam 22. Including an inner polycarbonate layer 26 on at least some regions of the EPP foam 22 is generally desirable, as it provides a more stable, better energy-absorbing structure than does a shell that does not include any inner polycarbonate layer 26. Comfort foam or other comfort padding is preferably included on an interior surface of the EPP foam 22 or polycarbonate layer 26 to provide a comfortable fit for the wearer.
 In one embodiment, the polycarbonate layers 24, 26 may be vacuum formed and trimmed to a desired shape, then put into a mold with a pre-molded EPP layer 22 for bonding or fusing the polycarbonate layers 24, 26 to the EPP layer 22. In another embodiment, the polycarbonate layers 24, 26 may be placed into an EPP mold and then insert molded or "in-molded" with the EPP foam. In an alternative
embodiment, the polycarbonate layer or layers may be injection molded and then bonded to a liner of EPP foam.
 Vacuum forming or insert molding generally are preferred over injection molding, as these processes allow for lighter and thinner plastic layers than does a typical injection molding process. It has been found, for example, that the inner and outer polycarbonate layers 24, 26 may be formed from sheets having a thickness as low as 0.7mm (which may become approximately 2mm thinner after undergoing a vacuum forming and molding process), whereas traditional injection molded helmets typically include a plastic shell having a thickness of approximately 1 .8 to 3mm. Any of the processes described herein, or another suitable process, however, may be used to construct the helmet shell 12.
 In some embodiments, the polycarbonate layers may be formed using combinations of two or more of these processes. For example, the outer layer 24 may be formed using an injection molding process while the inner layer may be formed using a vacuum forming process. As another example, the upper regions of the outer layer 24 may be formed using an insert molding process while lower regions of the outer layer 24 may be formed using an injection molding process.
 As is best shown in Figs. 1 and 3-6, in one embodiment, the helmet 10 includes a removable earpiece 30 on each side of the helmet 10. The earpiece 30 is preferably made of a plastic material but could be made of any other suitable material. The earpiece 30 may be transparent, translucent, or opaque. The earpiece 30 preferably includes an opening 31 through which sound may be transmitted to the wearer's ear.
 Each earpiece 30 is removably secured to a retention mechanism 35, which preferably is made of a nylon or plastic material, or another suitable material. The retention mechanism 35 may be embedded within the EPP foam layer 22 during molding of the helmet 10. The retention mechanism 35 alternatively may be an integral part of the plastic portion of the helmet shell itself, particularly if all or part of the shell is a thicker, injection molded component. In one embodiment, for example, the helmet shell may be a hybrid including thin, plastic layers on upper regions of the EPP foam, and including thicker, injection molded plastic layers on lower regions of the EPP foam, with the retention features to which the earpieces 30 are attachable integrally molded with the lower injection molded regions. In this embodiment, the injection molded lower regions may be bonded or mechanically attached, via rivets or other attachment elements, to the EPP foam layer 22.
 The retention mechanism 35 may include a single piece or multiple pieces. In the illustrated embodiments, the retention mechanism 35 includes a first retention element 36 and a second retention element 38 spaced apart from the first retention element 36. The first and second retention elements 36, 38 each include a rail 34 or other suitable retention member projecting into the space between the retention elements 36, 38. The earpiece 30 correspondingly includes a pair of longitudinal openings or channels 32 that slidably engage the rails 34. In an alternative
embodiment, the rails may be included on the earpiece, and the corresponding channels may be included in the retention elements 36, 38, such that the rails will not be apparent on the shell when the earpieces are removed.
 As shown in Fig. 6, one or more of the rails 34 optionally include an opening 40. In this embodiment, the earpiece 30 includes arms 42 having tabs or similar structures on inner surfaces thereof for engaging the openings 40 when the earpiece 30 is positioned on the rails 34. Such an arrangement allows the earpiece 30 to snap or click into place such that it remains in position on the rails 34 when the helmet 10 is subjected to contact. Other arrangements, such as including
corresponding raised ridges or bumps on the rails 34 and on internal regions of the channel-defining portions of the earpiece 30, may alternatively be used to hold the earpiece 30 in position.
 The earpiece 30 may be attached or removed from the helmet 10 by sliding the channels 32 along the rails 34 in the appropriate direction. If the rails include openings 40 or other mating regions that engage with the arms 42 or other portions of the earpiece 30, a small amount of force will be required to move the earpiece 30 into and out of the fully attached position. Fig. 7 shows the helmet 10 with the earpieces 30 removed from the helmet 10.
 The retention mechanism 35 may include ear loop supports 50 that define openings through which ear loops 52 may pass. The ear loop supports 50 provide structural anchors to which the ear loops 52 may be secured. The ear loop supports 50 are particularly beneficial when the helmet includes an EPP layer 22 and one or more thin polycarbonate layers 24, 26 (or no polycarbonate layers at all), since the EPP and thin polycarbonate layers 24, 26 do not provide as much structural support for the ear loop attachments as does a thicker, injection molded shell. The ear loop supports 50, which are preferably embedded in the EPP layer 22, provide strong anchors for the ear loops that aid the helmet 10 in meeting certification standards.
 The retention mechanism 35 optionally further includes threaded fasteners 55 for receiving screws used to attach an optional visor or faceguard (or other component) to the helmet 10. The threaded fasteners 55 are preferably made of a metal material but may be made of any other suitable material. Each threaded fastener is preferably over-molded in a plastic housing 56 that projects outwardly from the retention mechanism 35. The upper, flat surface of each housing 56 acts as a shoulder against which a screw head or attached visor or faceguard may rest. The housings 56 are preferably attached to teeth or arms 57 that aid in resisting rotation of the retention mechanism 35 when screws are threaded into or out of the fasteners 55. Because the retention mechanism 35 is embedded in the EPP foam 22, the threaded fasteners 55 will not fall into the helmet 10 or otherwise move when screws are removed from the fasteners 55.
 In the illustrated embodiment, the helmet shell includes three openings or holes 58 on each side of the helmet in which three fastener housings 56 are positioned. Any number of holes 58 may be included but most existing face guards require two or three attachment points on each side of the helmet 10 for connecting the visor or faceguard to the helmet 10. To attach a visor or faceguard to the helmet, the screws (if present) may be threaded out of the fasteners 55 and the openings in the visor or face guard may be aligned with the holes 58. The screws may then be threaded back into the fasteners 55 to secure the visor or face guard to the helmet 10 (in some instances, longer screws than the original helmet screws may be required to accommodate the thickness of a given visor or face guard).
 Each retention mechanism 35 optionally includes a rear tab 60 or other attachment element including an opening 62 that provides an attachment point for a fitting element in the interior of the helmet. In this embodiment, each the tab 60 preferably projects through an opening or slit in the EPP foam 22 into the helmet's interior. A projecting post or similar feature on a fitting element may be secured to the tab 60 by pushing it through the large region of the opening 62 and pulling it into the smaller region of the opening 62. One or more adjustable bands or similar fitting devices may be attached between two fitting elements to provide an adjustable fit system.
 The helmet features described herein provide for a lightweight helmet that optionally may be molded into one piece as opposed to a traditional two-piece shell. When molded in one piece, the helmet does not include the gaps that are generally present in a two-piece adjustable shell. Thus, it provides added head coverage and protection, and also provides a helmet which generally has an increased lateral stiffness. A one-piece shell also generally includes fewer moving parts that could potentially come loose, rattle, and so forth. Additionally, the earpieces 30 are much easier to remove and re-attach than are conventional earpieces, since they do not require tools or other objects to effectuate their removal.
 One or more of the helmet features described herein may be used in other helmets, such as batters' helmets, pitchers' helmets, catchers' helmets, lacrosse helmets, football helmets, and so forth. For example, a batter's helmet could be constructed by in-molding a layer of EPP foam between a pair of thin polycarbonate layers. Furthermore, a retention mechanism including threaded fasteners for
attachment of a visor or face guard could be embedded in the EPP foam of the batter's helmet.
 Any of the above-described embodiments may be used alone or in combination with one another. Furthermore, the helmet may include additional features not described herein. While several embodiments have been shown and described, various changes and substitutions may of course be made, without departing from the spirit and scope of the invention. The invention, therefore, should not be limited, except by the following claims and their equivalents.