Skating Close to the Edge: Addressing Safety Concerns in Ice Hockey


In the fast-paced world of ice hockey, where the speed of the players is only matched by the thrill of the game, injuries are an unfortunate and, at times, devastating reality of the sport. The ice hockey community was shocked on Friday 28 October 2023 when Nottingham Panthers player Adam Johnson died after he was hit in the neck by a skate during an English National Ice Hockey League match against the Sheffield Steelers. 

Numerous parties from ice hockey fans and media to experts, current and former hockey players (including some of Johnson’s teammates in Nottingham), have called it a "freak accident." However, legitimate questions arise when examining the rules governing safety in ice hockey. 

History of Safety

Some argue that a resistance to safety lies deep in the sport’s culture. The governing bodies and their players have arguably been slow to implement protective measures to safeguard player welfare. They avoided masks for goalkeepers for decades and only began to gradually wear helmets from 1979 after a mandate was imposed and then glacially adopted across the professional leagues.[1] This came after years of players sustaining dental and facial injuries or traumatic head and brain injuries, and even then it included a grandfather clause for veterans who were reluctant to wear protection. It wasn’t until the 2013–14 season that the NHL (the American Ice Hockey League) finally required players to wear visors to prevent eye injuries and the NHL rules still only include a five-minute sin bin for fighting. 

There is also a history of injury and occasionally even death within ice hockey. Minnesota North Stars forward Bill Masterton died in 1968 several days after hitting his head on the ice following a pair of hits with opposing players. Buffalo Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk is said to have lost 1.5 litres of blood after his carotid artery was severed by a skate blade in 1989.[2] A similar incident happened in 2008 to Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik. Both just survived. Last year, Teddy Balkind, a high school player in Connecticut, suffered a cut to the throat during a game and died of his injuries. 

Much like the discussions in the media that have followed Johnson’s death, the loss of Teddy Balkind prompted questions about mandating the use of neck guards – a Velcro-clasped foam sleeve that sits around the neck or a protective collar attached to a player’s base layer shirt. They are designed to prevent players from suffering fatal or near-fatal injuries to the neck from the most dangerous pieces of equipment on the ice, the blades on the player's skates. However, the uptake amongst players has always been low. Neck guards are viewed as an unfashionable piece of safety equipment, yet one that could have saved lives. 

Rule Changes

The English Ice Hockey Association will require players to wear neck guards beginning in 2024. However, the United Kingdom’s Elite Ice Hockey League will not. USA Hockey still only “recommends” that players wear neck guards and requirements vary by region. The NHL’s deputy commissioner said on Tuesday 7 November that the league has been in touch with Marty Walsh, head of the NHL players’ union, on the topic, and that the NHL is now “strongly recommending” cut-resistant equipment.[3] However, there is no suggestion, as matters stand, that players will be required to wear this piece of equipment. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) also does not mandate neck guards. However, in Canada, the historical home of ice hockey, all under-16 players are required to wear neck guards no matter where they play.

Development and the Future

Ice hockey equipment, and its uptake amongst players, has progressed in many areas. In recent years, undershirts with cut-resistant wrist areas, blade-stopping socks and compression garments that extend protection over the Achilles tendon have become more popular at all levels, including the NHL. Yet, even as players have carried this updated equipment into the professional leagues, the tendency has been to abandon neck guards as soon as they can. It is hoped that the tragedy in Sheffield will prompt further action and that professional ice hockey will review the rulebook when it comes to player safety. 





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