ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — Hockey is well-known as a dangerous sport. With fights, body-checks, and flying pucks, players put their safety on the line every time they step on the ice.
However, last week, the danger turned deadly when former National Hockey League player Adam Johnson died during a game after his neck was slashed by a skate.
The death sent shockwaves through the hockey community, and sparked renewed advocacy for neck guards at all levels. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who Johnson played for previously, announced it will mandate neck protection for its minor league clubs and encourage players at the NHL level to adopt it as well.
Closer to home, parents and coaches of local youth teams are equally worried about their players’ safety. While neck guards are not currently mandated by the United State Hockey League, the top junior ice hockey league sanctioned by USA Hockey, leagues are under more scrutiny to protect players following Johnson’s death.
“It’s something that may never happen, it’s rare. But it’s better to have that protection than not,” says Eric Brown, who coaches a squirt AA youth hockey team in Rockford.
Though calls to mandate neck protection have grown since the tragic incident, Brown says kids are less likely to wear the special gear because they don’t see the benefits and most NHL players, who they look up to, do not wear them.
Brown says it’s up to coaches to protect youth players.
“Make sure that every kid does have a neck guard, that they are wearing it as much as they can. You know it does fall on coaches as well, make sure that your players are protected with a neck guard.”
Brown also emphasizes that high-end professional hockey leagues have trained medical staff to immediately treat injuries, a luxury not found in youth and lower-end leagues, making neck guards even more critical.