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Neck protection calls echo across hockey ice after skate slash kills player

Team Canada icon Hayley Wickenheiser calls for mandated neck protection at ‘every level in hockey’
Toronto Maple Leafs assistant general manager Hayley Wickenheiser takes part in the first round of the NHL draft in Montreal, Thursday, July 7, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

The hockey world is reacting to a tragic on-ice accident and wondering what steps should be taken to prevent it from happening again.

Four-time Olympic gold medallist Hayley Wickenheiser is calling for mandated neck protection at “every level in hockey” after former NHL player Adam Johnson died from a cut by a skate blade during a game in England on Saturday.

Wickenheiser completed medical school after her women’s hockey career with Canada and currently works as a doctor and an assistant general manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

She says not wearing protection poses far too great a risk, even if it’s not in style.

“I know it may not pass the ‘cool’ factor but it’s time for mandatory neck protection at every level in hockey. The risk is far too great not to,” said Wickenheiser in a post offering her condolences to Johnson’s family on X platform, formerly known as Twitter.

Although neck guards are not mandatory in the NHL, the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League require players to wear neck guards. It’s also obligatory for Hockey Canada players registered in minor or women’s hockey.

The Western Hockey League said Monday it is reviewing its position on mandatory neck guards following Johnson’s death.

Johnson, a Minnesota native who played 13 NHL games with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was on the ice for the Elite Ice Hockey League’s Nottingham Panthers in a Challenge Cup game against the Sheffield Steelers when he suffered the skate cut during the second period.

The English Ice Hockey Association, the sport’s governing body in England and Wales, announced Monday that neck guards will be mandatory across all levels of English hockey effective Dec. 31.

The association noted they can’t apply the rules immediately due to supply chain issues.

“Good for them for taking action,” said Vancouver Canucks forward Sam Lafferty. “When we’re kids, we wear neck guards for a reason, it’s something worth looking into (for the NHL).”

Lafferty, a former Penguin, assisted on Johnson’s first and only NHL goal.

“I remember it clearly … I can still see the look on his face,” Lafferty said. “Pure elation, pure joy.”

Several members of the Providence Bruins, Boston’s American Hockey League affiliate, wore neck guards in their game against the Springfield Thunderbirds on Sunday.

Lafferty said NHL players may also start thinking about wearing protection in light of his former teammate’s death.

“I think so. We started looking at that for wrists, and the socks we wear underneath our skates, they’re cut-proof,” said Lafferty. “I can see that being the next step.”

Canucks defenceman Ian Cole noted the dangers of the sport and said players are “very fortunate” serious injuries don’t happen more often.

“There’s skates flying all over the place,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at my visor and had a skate slashed right through it and I had no idea a skate was near my face.

“We’re a slow sport to change, maybe sometimes for the good, maybe sometimes for the bad. It’s not going to happen overnight but I think there will be some conversations about what we can do to prevent stuff like that.”

Winnipeg Jets interim head coach Scott Arniel was a forward for the Buffalo Sabres when his teammate, goalie Clint Malarchuk, took a skate blade to the neck on March 22, 1989.

“I was firsthand and I saw this happen in a game myself, and it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen,” Arniel told reporters in Winnipeg. “Where it goes next, I know in minor hockey that it’s already a rule and in junior hockey, so we’ll see.

“The league is probably going to look into this and they’ll make a decision moving forward.”

Malarchuk survived the life-threatening injury but developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Former Montreal Canadiens forward Richard Zednik suffered a similar incident in 2008.

Boston Bruins forward Jakub Lauko avoided a serious injury as recently as last Tuesday when he took a skate blade near his left eye after falling to the ice against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said he’s thought about the use of neck protection before and suggested it might be a next step in making the game safer.

“At one point goalies weren’t wearing helmets, and the game has evolved and continues to get safer and safer,” Tavares told reporters in Toronto. “That’s certainly probably an aspect that needs to continue to be looked at further, as one incident like that is too many.”

Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis, who coached his sons in Connecticut before taking the Montreal job, was close to a similar situation when 16-year-old high school player Teddy Balkind died in Greenwich, Conn., after his neck was cut by another player’s skate.

St. Louis said he’s strongly in favour of requiring under-18 and under-20 players to wear neck protection, but isn’t sure we’ll see it in the NHL.

“Maybe yes, but I don’t think it will in the NHL, but that’s my opinion,” said St. Louis. “I’d be really in favour of under-18 and under-20-year-olds having more protection because accidents happen, especially having been close to it two years ago.”

Jets centre Mark Scheifele expects there to be many conversations about increased neck protection in the coming days, much like after Edmonton Oilers forward Evander Kane sustained a severe wrist injury due to a skate blade cut last year.

“When Evander Kane got his wrist cut, we obviously evaluated more wrist protections and stuff like that,” Scheifele said. “I’m sure there’s going to be talks about it and it’ll come down to kind of more of an individual decision on what to do.”

The NHL and NHLPA had not made any announcements regarding protective neck gear as of Monday afternoon.

READ ALSO: American hockey player Adam Johnson dies after getting cut in the neck by a skate in England