January 10, 2022
Hockey parents have been coming in numbers to Hamden Sports Center since Thursday night. Retail manager Chuck Wasilewski said he barely knew what to say to them.
“You knew what they were coming in for,” Wasilewski said. “Parents are just devastated.”
The increased interest in purchasing neck protectors comes in the wake of the accidental death of Teddy Balkind, a sophomore junior varsity hockey player at St. Luke’s in New Canaan. Authorities have not yet said if Balkind was wearing a neck guard, but the young player’s death after a skate cut his neck highlights the need for uniformed guidelines, some say.
The protectors, which may include material like Kevlar, are designed to resist errant skate blades in the rare cases where they might meet a player’s neck. They might be a separate piece or might be attached to a player’s shirt. Kevlar is a strong synthetic fiber used in among other things bulletproof vests.
The rules about wearing neck protectors vary. Professional and college players aren’t required to wear them. On levels below college, including high schools, the rules can be different depending on the body that governs a league or conference.
In Connecticut, most local prep-school athletics are governed by NEPSAC, the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council. Prep-school rules tend to mirror the NCAA’s, but attempts to reach representatives from NEPSAC on Monday were not successful. St. Luke’s is a member of the NEPSAC.
The CIAC, which governs high school hockey in Connecticut for public and some private schools, has required neck protectors since at least the 2001-02 season.
“This is a tragic scenario, and we express our heartfelt condolences and support to everyone involved in this,” CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini said. “NEPSAC runs a very good program. We don’t collaborate.”
There are also forms of youth hockey in Connecticut that fall under the Connecticut Hockey Conference, which relies on USA Hockey rules. USA Hockey, which could not be reached for comment Monday, strongly recommends neck laceration guards.
“(Thursday’s) was a freak accident. The worst outcome happened. I feel so bad for the family,” Connecticut Hockey Conference President Chuck Wilkerson said, adding that he always has his kids wear a neck guard.
In Connecticut, the CIAC doesn’t sanction high school girls hockey, but Ridgefield athletic director Dane Street, chairperson of the Connecticut High School Girls Hockey Association, said the organization mirrors the CIAC rule and mandates neck protection.
In other parts of the country, the requirement of neck protectors can similarly vary with the National Federation of State High School Associations only recommending their usage.
Everyone who spoke on Monday expressed similar sentiments for those who were there on Thursday. It’s an incident that has drawn sympathy from all corners of the hockey world and shaken the local community.
West Haven athletic director Joe Morrell, who was a longtime hockey coach at the school, remembered two players getting cut in the days before neck guards. They were alright, but the incidents were frightening.
“When I coached, and I know our coaches do the same thing, we kick them off the ice if (the guard) is not on for practice or anything,” Morrell said. “It saves lives. People say ‘If the puck hits, it’s not going to help.’ Well, it’s not for the puck. It’s for the skate. A lot of those things are made of Kevlar, so the skate can’t cut through it and that’s the purpose of it.
“Not all leagues require it but I’m glad the CIAC does.”
Sal Follo, a member of the CIAC hockey committee who coached Milford’s co-op program through the period where the guards were required, said it wasn’t difficult to get players to wear them.
“It was just part of their equipment,” he said. “It wasn’t a discussion. It was part of the rules, and that’s it.”
Trumbull coach Greg Maxey, also on the CIAC hockey committtee, said some of his players weren’t as easy to convince.
“The kids, like most things, don’t always like to wear like any of that stuff,” Maxey said. “We had our first couple of games: I had three kids like, ‘coach, I don’t have a neck guard.’ Well then you can’t play.”
It’s not a new discussion.
USA Hockey’s website has a player-safety page that discusses neck laceration protection. “There is sparse data on neck laceration prevalence,” it says, with data compiling 33 such injuries with no dates or context: 20 needed only bandaging, 11 were sutured, two were glued.
“Current neck laceration protector designs *do not eliminate the risk* of a neck laceration,” the page says, italics in the original, saying 27 percent of those injured were wearing neck protection.
The NHL has no mandates, either, but it has also had some near-catastrophic incidents.
When the Florida Panthers’ Richard Zednik suffered a serious cut to his neck in 2008, an NHL.com story quoted several teammates who were skeptical, who said a neck guard would not have helped in Zednik’s case, who claimed protection was uncomfortable.
On the other side, Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne was among those who suggested the NHL at least require neck protection for new players while allowing veterans to choose, much as the league did for helmets in 1979 and would do for visors — a clear half-shield of the face in front of the eyes — in 2013.
Wilkerson didn’t think there was anything to preclude a local organization putting its own mandate in place, and at least one state youth program sent a reminder letter to parents that neck protection was required.
“I don’t hear any argument to contest (protection),” said Wilkerson, who as a goalie wears a “dangler,” which hangs off the mask to prevent pucks from hitting his throat.
“I don’t know. Other than that, at the youth ages, we’ve always strongly recommended to wear them along with everything else you’re supposed to wear.”
Requirements only go as far as they’re enforced, of course.
“It seemed like everyone was cracking down on it (wearing neck guards),” Wasilewski said.
“Let’s hope more kids get protected out there.”