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Death of a player from a skate to the neck reignites hockey’s stubborn debate over protective gear

Boston Bruins' David Pastrnak kneels on the ice during a timeout in the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Dallas Stars in Boston, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. The death of American hockey player Adam Johnson from a cut to the neck in England has reignited the debate over skate blade safety. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

(AP) — It took the NHL until 1979 to mandate helmets and goalie masks for new players. It wasn’t until 2013 that eye-protecting visors became mandatory — grandfathered in for veterans, of course. A handful of players still don’t wear them.

Broken jaws, smashed noses and concussions haven’t led to full face shields or cages in professional men’s hockey at any level, either. This week, the death of an American player from a skate blade to the neck during a game in England has reignited the debate over cut-resistant protection and why more players don’t wear it.

That this is a debate might be surprising to some outside the sport. It shouldn’t be. Change in hockey tends to be slow, if it comes at all.

Ask players if they have been cut by a skate in an NHL game or practice, and the affirmative answers are startlingly high. Some are well-known — Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tendon injury a decade ago and Evander Kane’s sliced wrist last year, for example. The death of a prep school player in Connecticut in 2022 got some thinking about safety improvements again, and the topic is the talk of the sport this week after Adam Johnson, a former NHL player, died at a U.K. hospital from his cut.

Just the same, it is unlikely to bring immediate change to a sport stubbornly resistant to it. The helmet mandate, for example, came 11 years and countless head injuries after Bill Masterton became the only NHL player to die as a direct result of injuries suffered on the ice.

“It’s always tough to change,” player-turned-Philadelphia general manager Danny Briere said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, you’re always waiting for something tragic to happen for change to come. Hopefully we don’t have to wait for another one.”

Neck guards are not mandatory in the NHL, and neither is any kind of cut protection for wrists or the back of players’ legs, areas that are more vulnerable than heavily-guarded shoulders and elbows. Karlsson’s gruesome injury prompted more players to try socks made of Kevlar, the synthetic fiber used in making bulletproof vests, and Cutlon, a fabric used in shark bite-resistant suits.

Some are reluctant still because of concerns over comfort on the ice.

“They feel weird in my skates,” veteran Colorado defenseman Jack Johnson said of the socks before this season. “I wasn’t too happy with the way that I felt. But I’ve made it this far, so I’m going to stick with what’s working.”

Karlsson, now with Pittsburgh, said he wishes he was wearing cut-proof socks when a skate blade from Matt Cooke sliced through his left Achilles tendon in 2013.

“That’s probably what started that trend was my injury there because I don’t think anyone was really wearing it before that,” Karlsson said. “I think most guys just wear it because it’s just like a normal sock anyways.”

It seems like nearly everyone around hockey has a story of a skate cut, whether they’ve been stitched up themselves or seen it happen. Colorado defenseman Josh Manson recalled a cut when he was in juniors.

“I hit a guy and he fell back and kind of kicked up and kicked me in the stomach. I went into the penalty box and as I’m sitting there, like kind of felt something burning. So I lifted up my shirt and there was blood just kind of pouring down,” he said. “It was as if like you took a sharp knife on a piece of steak and just kind of like dragged it along it and opened up the top a little bit.”

He was sewed up “in, like, the laundry room” and played the rest of the game.

In 1989, Buffalo goaltender Clint Malarchuk’s neck was sliced open by a skate during a game and in 2008 it happened to Florida forward Richard Zednik. Both got immediate help from trainers and medical personnel and both returned to the game they loved.

Johnson, 29, will not.

“It’s a game,” NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh said. “It’s a job for the players, but it’s something that you don’t want anyone when they go to work to not come home.”

Advocates of mandatory neck guards like Mercyhurst College men’s hockey coach Rick Gotkin see Johnson’s death as a wake-up call.

“These guys are skating on razor blades,” said Gotkin, whose efforts began in earnest earlier this year after seeing an Army player need surgery for a skate cut to the neck. “You think about the course of a game: guys hunched over, scrambles in front of the goal and everything else, you could see where this is something that needs to be addressed.”

Washington’s T.J. Oshie said he received more than 100 messages since Johnson’s death about cut-resistant protection made by his company, and Warroad Hockey sold out within hours. He wore a neck guard in the Capitals’ game Thursday night.

Bauer Hockey pledged to work with other equipment manufacturers to make neck guards more widely available and, eventually, mandatory, like the England Ice Hockey Association did this week.

Mandates exist at some youth programs in the U.S., Canada and other countries, but not in the NHL. League and union leaders have studied cut-resistant materials for years and have resumed talks about them in light of the tragedy in England.

“Players are free to wear it now,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Whether it’s something that’s mandated either directly or on a phased-in basis, that’s something we discuss with the players’ association.”

When Bettman’s son, Jordan, played high school hockey before mandates were in place, his wife, Shelli, wouldn’t let him on the ice without a neck guard. Bettman recalled one early practice when Jordan told his mother the coach said it was voluntary, and she responded, “No, it’s not.”

Long time Professional Hockey Players’ Association executive director Larry Landon feels the same pull as the representative of hundreds of minor leaguers and a grandfather, who said of his grandsons: “Do I want them to wear cut-resistant stuff? Absolutely. Paint their body with it if they have to.”

Walsh wants to have those discussions with his members across the NHL. There is evidence some attitudes are already changing.

“Wearing as much protective cut-proof gear as you can is always smart,” said Colorado’s Ross Colton, who wears cut-proof socks pulled up to his knees and protects his wrists with what resemble sweat bands. In youth hockey, Colton wore a layer that zipped up into pretty much a neck guard, after his dad pushed him to wear it.

Once sliced on the wrist and knowing his father once took a skate to the neck when he played, Vegas defenseman Nicolas Hague felt differently hopes this was just a one-off fluke.

“It’s just such a shame that it even had to happen once,” Hague said. “It’s hard. Guys are stuck in their ways.”

Sabres captain Kyle Okposo, who wears cut-resistant socks, compared this situation in hockey to the on-field collapse of Damar Hamlin of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills as something that makes players appreciate their moments in the game but doesn’t stop them from doing it for a living.

“You play this game and you obviously understand there’s risk to it,” Okposo said. “It’s incredibly unfortunate. It’s just one of those things as players I don’t think you can really allow your mind to go to that place. I think you just play the game the way you play it.”

Carolina captain Jordan Staal has been wearing protective socks for years and is looking at more options to avoid getting cut.

“I got one right up the leg, about 50 stitches, a long time ago,” he recalled. “They said I got a skate right up close to my artery — really close. … The big man upstairs was watching out for me there. I got very fortunate. It’s kind of what we flirt with, and you try to take as much protection as you can.”

AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo and AP freelance reporter Willie G. Ramirez contributed.