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Felix’s Hockey Takes: Mandating Protective Gear

Rest In Peace, Adam Johnson

Content warning for sensitivity

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare in hockey. A skate blade to a dangerous area of the body from a falling opposing player. But it happened.

Earlier this week, former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Adam Johnson was playing for the Nottingham Panthers in England’s EIHL (Elite Ice Hockey League) when he suffered a cut to the neck area by a skate blade. Considering the sensitivity of the incident, I will not be including a link to the graphic incident. Johnson passed away the following day.

League Mandates & More Players Opting for Neck Guards

Following the incident, the EIHA announced a mandate of neck guards from 2024 onwards. However, the EIHL, not under the EIHA umbrella, will not be mandating neck guards due to a limited supply, yet encourages their use. The Pittsburgh Penguins made neck guards mandatory for its AHL and ECHL affiliates.

Players from various teams, like the Winnipeg Jets, are increasingly opting for neck protection.

TJ Oshie shared his poignant reason for wearing one in a recent game against the Islanders.

The WHL has also mandated neck guards, effective November 3rd or as soon as the equipment becomes available. They join the rest of the CHL, which had already mandated the protective equipment.

Moreover, discussions between Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHLPA are leaning towards considering mandates for neck guards.

Why It Matters

This tragic incident has accelerated the urgency for mandated protective gear for players. The NHL has long been at the forefront of numerous player safety controversies, from not prioritizing hits to the head to certain players still going visorless to helmetless warmups. Yes, even that last one is a bit of a controversy considering players have taken pucks to the noggin. For the NHL, avoiding another class action lawsuit like the one in 2013 — regarding CTE — is imperative, making it in their best interest to mandate neck protection.

I’m honestly surprised that neck cuts from skate blades haven’t happened more often, but I know there have been several close calls over the years to the neck and facial areas. 

Hockey’s tradition often celebrates mental toughness, where players are praised for their bravery in blocking shots. However, it’s important to note that taking pucks to the head or face, in many cases, is unintentional, distinct from intentionally blocking shots. But they do result in the player needing to skate off for repairs. Sometimes there have been close calls, like high sticking incidents that could blind a player.

Mandating neck guards is an important step for hockey to ensure the safety of its players. It shouldn’t be the only step.

Hockey is a fast game. Accidents happen all the time, but they can still be mitigated. All forms of protection should be implemented in the future at all levels, such as wrist guards and neck guards for goalies. Additionally, with so many incidents that involve the facial area, why not having plastic face shields? If players have complained about vision issues with the full face shields that college players wear, why not work with the top companies in hockey equipment to make more player-friendly face shields?

Final Thoughts

It’s highly unfortunate that it’s taken the tragic death of a hockey player for the community to begin taking protective gear seriously. This isn’t the old days anymore where not a lot was known about proper player safety. It took a flying puck breaking his nose for Canadiens legend Jacques Plante to finally wear his goalie mask during a game. Remarkably, even the incident involving former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk, who took a skate to the throat, didn’t result in neck guard mandates for goalies. Maybe this tragedy will get more players to think twice about helmetless warmups. Who knows? Flow isn’t that important in a game, y’all!

While I’m glad that neck protection is gaining more traction, this shouldn’t be the end of the line for proper player protection. Leagues should start mandating more protective gear to protect its players, and focus on educating its players on why it’s important. At the end of the day, the onus is on the players to heed that level of protection. But no level of inadequate gear will ever outweigh a player’s life.

An Aside: Nottingham Panther’s AJ47 Memorial Jersey

The Panthers have created a memorial jersey for their late teammate. Proceeds from the sale for the replica version will support charitable activities in the Hibbing area, where Adam Johnson hailed from.

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