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Death of Adam Johnson from skate blade prompts new look at neck guard mandates in youth hockey

by Joshua Brown
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Neck Guards in Youth Hockey

The recent tragic incident involving professional hockey player Adam Johnson, who suffered a fatal cut to his throat during a game, has prompted a reevaluation of safety measures in youth hockey, particularly the use of neck guards. In response to this incident, parents like Dan Sacco, whose 10-year-old twins play in the youth hockey program in North Branford, Connecticut, have taken action by purchasing new, more protective neck guards for their children.

While neck guards are already required for youth hockey in some states, the lack of uniform standards and mandates across the nation has led to varying policies. USA Hockey, the national governing body for the sport, recommends neck guards but does not mandate them, leaving it up to individual organizations and states to decide. This inconsistency in regulations has raised concerns among parents and players.

The availability of neck guards varies in terms of price and design. They can range from about $15 for standard, relatively thin wrap-around guards to $110 for hockey shirts made of cut-resistant material that come with thicker guards built in. Cost can be a factor for many parents when considering safety equipment for their children.

The importance of neck guards became painfully evident in 2022 when a 16-year-old player, Teddy Balkind, suffered a fatal throat cut while playing for a private prep school in Connecticut. This incident prompted increased awareness and sales of neck guards in the region. Courtney Anderson’s son, Evan Smolik, who initially resisted wearing a neck guard, had a near-miss experience when a teammate’s skate struck his throat. The guard prevented a life-threatening injury, and Evan now advocates for the use of neck guards.

Former NHL player Pierre-Luc Létourneau-Leblond emphasizes the need to normalize the use of neck guards at all levels of hockey, from youth leagues to the NHL. Implementing a mandate in the NHL would require agreement between the league and the players’ union, which has been discussing skate blade safety for years.

In response to these incidents, USA Hockey’s board of directors has initiated the process of creating a mandate for neck guards. Additionally, the International Ice Hockey Federation has announced that it will make neck guards mandatory for the tournaments it oversees, including the Olympics and world championships. In Canada, neck protection is already mandatory for youth hockey leagues and top junior leagues.

Dr. Michael Stuart, the chief medical officer for USA Hockey, stresses the need for high-quality, affordable, and cut-resistant products, including neck laceration protectors, and emphasizes the importance of continuous monitoring and improvement.

Despite the growing awareness of the importance of neck guards, there is also a need for updated and higher standards for the effectiveness of such equipment. According to Stuart, some neck lacerations still occur to players wearing guards that are not adequately tested or certified and do not cover vulnerable areas.

Efforts are being made to address these concerns, with USA Hockey collaborating with the Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC) to develop new standards not only for neck guards but also for cut-resistant socks, wrist guards, and protection for other vulnerable areas.

Teri Weiss, the founder of Skate Armor, has been advocating for neck guard safety for over a decade. Her company has seen increased interest in neck guards following tragic incidents like Teddy Balkind’s and Adam Johnson’s deaths. However, some players, like Mason Lohrei of the Boston Bruins, have cited comfort and fit issues with neck guards, prompting discussions about creating custom solutions.

In conclusion, the recent incidents in youth hockey have highlighted the need for standardized safety measures, including mandatory neck guards. While progress is being made in this regard, there is still work to be done to ensure the safety of young athletes in the sport of hockey.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Neck Guards in Youth Hockey

What prompted the debate on neck guards in youth hockey?

The debate on neck guards in youth hockey was prompted by recent tragic incidents, particularly the fatal cut to the throat of professional hockey player Adam Johnson during a game.

Are neck guards already mandatory in youth hockey?

Neck guards are mandatory in some states, but there is no uniform mandate across the United States. USA Hockey recommends their use but does not mandate them, leading to varying policies.

How much do neck guards cost, and is cost a factor for parents?

Neck guards can range in price from about $15 for standard guards to $110 for more advanced options. Cost is indeed a factor for many parents when considering safety equipment for their children.

Can you provide an example of how a neck guard prevented a life-threatening injury?

Certainly. Evan Smolik, a youth hockey player, had a near-miss experience when a teammate’s skate struck his throat. The neck guard prevented a potentially fatal injury by stopping the blade from cutting his carotid artery.

What efforts are being made to standardize neck guard usage in hockey?

USA Hockey’s board of directors is working on creating a mandate for neck guards. Additionally, the International Ice Hockey Federation is making neck guards mandatory for tournaments it oversees, and Canada already requires neck protection in youth hockey leagues.

What are the concerns regarding the effectiveness of neck guards?

Some neck lacerations have occurred to players wearing guards that are not adequately tested or certified and do not cover vulnerable areas. There is a need for updated and higher standards for the effectiveness of such equipment.

Are there discussions about safety standards for other hockey equipment?

Yes, efforts are being made to develop new standards not only for neck guards but also for cut-resistant socks, wrist guards, and protection for other vulnerable areas in collaboration with the Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC).

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