NHL neck guards: the hazards of just skating by

The Berkeley Beacon

November 19, 2023

On Oct. 28, former NHL player Adam Johnson was killed during an English professional hockey league game when another player’s skate sliced his throat.

Many people know contact sports like ice hockey are dangerous, but they may not know how truly deadly it can be without the proper precautions. Along with the usual risk for concussions and bodily injuries that come with contact sports, ice hockey is especially unsafe because of the sharp blades on the skates used to glide on top of the ice at speeds upwards of 25 mph.

As a result of Johnson’s death, the English Ice Hockey Association is requiring all players wear neck guards beginning Jan. 1, 2024.

And on Tues., Nov. 14, a man was arrested on manslaughter charges over Johnson’s death after a postmortem examination confirmed his death was a result of a cut to the neck. The severity of the situation is being taken seriously by police in England and hockey administrations in the U.S., and thus the safety risks must be taken more seriously by players.

Neck guards and other protective equipment, such as mouthguards and visors on helmets, are not mandated for all NHL players, with many new gear rules having to be “grandfathered” in and only applying to new players.

The National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) acts as the collective bargaining unit on behalf of the players and any new mandates must be approved by them before being implemented in games. Because of this, rules in the NHL take copious amounts of time to change.

Of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team Johnson played for in the NHL, Head Coach Mike Sullivan reported that the Penguins will require neck guards for their minor league affiliated teams, as they cannot mandate the gear for the major league team. However, the Pens will still be recommending its players look into extra protection, in the hopes of a better prioritization of safety resulting from the horrific accident.

Individual players were spooked into action as well. Washington Capitals right winger T.J. Oshie ordered turtlenecks for himself and his teammates, and he has worn them in game following the incident, setting an example for the rest of the league. Oshie said publicly that he made the choice to start wearing neck guards for his kids, because he wants to be there for them in the future. Other players should follow his lead and protect themselves not only for personal safety reasons but also for their loved ones.

Oshie founded Warroad, a hockey gear company, in 2018, lending “insider knowledge about what NHL players truly need to play at the highest level,” according to their website. Protective gear is easy enough for players to get, especially when they endorse or own companies like Warroad, so there is no barrier acquisition wise, and thus no excuse.

Fellow Caps winger, Tom Wilson, tried out the neck guards Oshie’s company made at practice, and said they are, “pretty good quality stuff, and I honestly didn’t really notice it at all. A little warmer than normal shirts, but, I mean, it’s no big deal if it’s going to protect you.”

The body temperature issue is the main argument against implementing neck guards, amongst various superstitions and attachments to nostalgic gear. The ice rinks, ironically, end up being very hot for the players and the less layers underneath the polyester jerseys, the better. However, cuts and wounds from the literal razor blades attached to players’ feet seem like they’d be more uncomfortable than some extra layers. The discomfort associated with wearing additional gear is coupled with a perceived “uncoolness” about extra padding, which is asinine.

Boston Bruins Head Coach Jim Montgomery grew up in Canada with a teen who was killed by a skate to the neck, and neck guards became mandatory there. He chose not to continue wearing one in college, however, due to discomfort.

“It is hard to get used to it and I think it is a personal choice because as soon as I got out of Quebec and got into college hockey, I took it off. I felt it restrained me,” Montgomery said in an interview with Boston.com. “The thing is, it moves up and down, maybe it’s not protecting you right where you need to be protected anyways.”

Even though Montgomery isn’t completely sure of the efficacy of the neck guards, these “freak” accidents happen more often than one might think and a change to protective gear rules is necessary. How many “freak” accidents until they are just called accidents? The NHL needs to mandate more protective gear, such as neck guards, before things go from bad to worse.

Back in Jan. 2022, Connecticut high school sophomore Teddy Balkind died from a skate to the neck while standing upright. According to police reports, an opposing player’s leg was in the air and the skate hit his neck. This accident emphasizes the necessity of improved neck protection as it shows how gruesome injuries can happen anytime, anyplace on the ice.

“I don’t think this is a freak thing, I think it happens quite a lot,” Toronto Maple Leafs assistant general manager Hayley Wickenheiser said. “Whatever we can do to make [neck guards] more mainstream and just part of equipment, the better for the future of the game.”

Another piece of protective gear not mandated by the NHL, that should be, is mouthguards. They help prevent face and tooth trauma, and reduce the chances of concussions, but around 10% of players choose not to wear them.

Dr. Bill Blair, dentist and current president of the NHL Team Dentists Association spoke again to the perceived “coolness” of certain protective gear.

“It is easier for us to sell the wearing of mouthguards to a professional hockey player based on concussion prevention, than of tooth injury,” Blair said.

The potential dangers of hockey lend themselves to the institution of as much protective gear as possible, and there is no strong argument against the mandating of mouthguards, especially since most players already choose to wear them.

Helmets were grandfathered into the NHL gear requirements four decades ago, and helmets with visors were mandated about 10 years ago. While some other lifesaving equipment is not required yet, past equipment regulation changes, like the helmet rules, have made the game safer.

The mandatory helmet rule was introduced four decades ago in 1979, but Craig MacTavish of the St. Louis Blues played until the 1996-97 season without one, as he signed his first pro contract before the start of the requirement. MacTavish cited physical discomfort and increased body temperature for why he chose not to wear a helmet, just like how players today justify not wearing protective undergarments.

“You release a lot of body heat through your head,” MacTavish said. “I remember being on the bench, throwing up during a game because I was overheating; It was more comfortable without [a helmet].”

While there is a safety risk body temperature wise, the dangers that come with sharp blades, aggressive players, and exposed skin augment the necessity of wearing extra protective layers. Helmets are obviously successful—there has been a strong decrease in the number of eye injuries in the NHL with the mandated helmets and visors.

The NHL made it mandatory for players who entered the league after the 2019-20 season to wear helmets during warmups as well, and visors on helmets were mandatory for players who signed after 2013. Players without visors are few and far between though, with less than 10 remaining in the NHL, but Bruins left wing Milan Lucic is one of them.

Though this way of implementing rules takes an excessively long time, it works. The NHL and NHLPA need to have discussions as soon as possible regarding the introduction of more protective gear, so that players will be forced into safer situations before more gruesome injuries happen. As seen with MacTavish, even if a new neck guard rule is put into place tomorrow, it can take almost two decades to be fully implemented, so change needs to happen immediately.

Seeing more protective layers is much more desirable than seeing a player get fatally injured on the ice, no matter how “uncool” the players look with more padding. It is clear that many NHL players value aesthetics over safety, which should not be the case.

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