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Interest in neck guards spikes after a hockey player's tragic death

Players from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks on Monday honored former Penguin player Adam Johnson, who died during a game in England. The Penguins are making neck guards mandatory for players at the minor-league level, and will also urge NHL players to wear them.
Gene J. Puskar
Players from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks on Monday honored former Penguin player Adam Johnson, who died during a game in England. The Penguins are making neck guards mandatory for players at the minor-league level, and will also urge NHL players to wear them.

The tragedy that took hockey player Adam Johnson's life has happened in the sport before — and while such incidents are rare, Johnson's death from a skate cut to the neck is spurring people and organizations to try to prevent it from happening again.

Interest in cut-resistant neck guards is surging as amateur and pro hockey players alike look for ways to ensure their safety. In some places, the gear quickly sold out after Johnson's death.

Johnson, a 6-foot forward, died Saturday while playing in England for the Nottingham Panthers. In what the team described as a "freak accident," another player's skate cut his neck. He was 29.

Pittsburgh Penguins to require neck guards in minor leagues

The Pittsburgh Penguins organization, where Johnson formerly played in the NHL, is now making neck protection gear mandatory for players in ice hockey's lower tiers, the American Hockey League and the ECHL.

Johnson spent three years with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL and played in more than a dozen NHL games for the Penguins.

The Penguins' NHL club is also looking at safety options.

"We're in the process right now of trying to talk to our players about some protective equipment in those vulnerable areas," such as the neck and wrists, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on Tuesday.

Sullivan said that while the team doesn't have the authority to issue a mandate at the NHL level, the Penguins will "strongly encourage" its players to use neck guards. He said he hopes the league will develop new options to help players protect themselves.

"That could be one of the positive things that might come out of this terrible tragedy," Sullivan said.

The NHL didn't immediately reply to a message seeking comment on the matter; any mandate on gear and equipment would also require approval from the NHL Players' Association.

Neck guard supplies are selling out

Consumer interest in neck guards exploded in the wake of Johnson's death. Today, visitors to the website for Warroad Hockey, an equipment and clothing company co-founded by Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie, are met with a pop-up notice informing them that the company recently sold out of its cut-resistant neck and wrist base layers due to "an influx of demand."

Both Oshie and Johnson are from Minnesota, where Warroad is also based. The company says it sold out of the neck protectors just one day after Johnson's tragic death. The company introduced the neck gear only a month ago.

"My motivation was for the youth," Oshie told Minneapolis TV station KARE. "You know, I think one death is one too many."

Oshie was referring to the death last year of Teddy Balkind, a 16-year-old who died after his neck was cut during a game between two high school teams in Connecticut.

The NHL has also seen devastating neck injuries from skates. In 1989, goaltender Clint Malarchuk of the Buffalo Sabres survived a terrible cut to his neck.

And in 2008, Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik nearly lost his life after his throat was slit by a teammate's skate blade. One year later, Chicago Blackhawks winger Adam Burish endured a similar, though thankfully less serious, injury.

Despite the risks and the brisk interest at the amateur level, many hockey players believe the adoption of neck guards at the sport's elite level will be a slow process, citing pro athletes' resistance to change and concerns about reduced mobility.

Oshie himself says that he hasn't been wearing his company's neck guard — but that he plans to try it out in practice.

Leagues are moving to embrace neck guards

Supply issues are a main factor that could slow the adoption of neck protectors, but they're not the only snag. Players will also need time to experiment with neck and wrist gear, to find equipment that feels comfortable and that they can wear without altering its protections.

Shortly after Johnson's death, the English Ice Hockey Association, the sport's governing body, said neck guards would become mandatory for all players on Jan. 1, 2024. Until then, it said, it will strongly recommend the gear.

"It is unacceptable for any player to lose their life while playing sport," the EIHA said. "Our responsibility is not only to avert the recurrence of such a heart-breaking accident, but also to pre-emptively address other foreseeable incidents in the future."

The governing body doesn't oversee the Elite Ice Hockey League, the pro league in which Johnson played for Nottingham. The mandate's delayed effective date, the association said, is "due to anticipated supply issues."

In the U.S., USA Hockey has a policy that recommends all players wear neck guards, citing "the potential catastrophic involvement of arteries, veins and nerves."

But the governing body also says there is "sparse data" about neck lacerations, from their frequency to the effectiveness of neck guards in preventing them. It notes that researchers found 27% of hockey players who sustained a neck laceration had been wearing a neck guard. It also says that while catastrophic injuries are clearly possible, most skate cuts to the neck weren't life-threatening.

An academic study published in 2015 also found that when researchers subjected 14 different types of commercially available neck protectors to simulated skate cuts, the gear showed a wide range of cut resistance.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.