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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Neck protection for NHL players won’t happen overnight, but history suggests it will happen

On Oct. 17, 2023, the Seattle Kraken are introduced before a game against the Colorado Avalanche at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle.  (Tribune News Servoce)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

SEATTLE – If history tells us anything, the transition of NHL players to wearing neck protection on a broad scale won’t happen overnight.

But if history really does tell us anything, it most certainly will happen.

Unfortunately, similar safety evolutions have usually needed death or serious injury to occur first. That’s what happened Saturday when former NHL player Adam Johnson died after his throat was slashed by a skate blade during a professional game in England.

The same NHL history also tells us players will likely need to be pushed – by the league, the NHL Players Association, their own peers and the minor professional and amateur circuits beneath them – into accepting that they’ll eventually have to endure some personal discomfort in adjusting to make neck protectors a permanent equipment staple.

For now, as horrible as Johnson’s death was and as hot a topic as neck protection has become, the likelihood of immediate NHL change is slim. For one, protecting the neck from skate blades simply isn’t ingrained in hockey culture.

USA Hockey, which governs minor programs in this country, recommends but doesn’t mandate “neck laceration protectors” – citing sparse evidence of their overall effectiveness. That nonbinding recommendation was maintained even after last year’s death of Connecticut high school player Teddy Balkind from a skate to the throat.

That differs from Canada, where protection is mandatory for minor hockey players.

Neck protectors aren’t required in the NCAA, American Hockey League or ECHL.

The end result is, a Canadian such as Kraken defenseman Vince Dunn was forced to wear one from his minor hockey days through his OHL career, while his American-born teammate Will Borgen was not. That alone indicates the uphill struggle of making neck guards more universally accepted. Borgen had his throat cut by a skate blade at age 17 as a Minnesota high school player and still doesn’t wear one.

The lack of uniform safety standards also makes it easier for players to eventually abandon neck guards for comfort reasons once turning pro. This might sound trivial, but at the highest pro levels, when athletes compete for jobs that pay millions of dollars, they don’t want anything detracting from their production. And players for years have complained neck protection equipment is bulky, distracting and too hot.

It’s similar in some respects to the NCAA’s policy on mandating since 1978 that players wear full helmet shields in the form of metal cages or clear plastic “bubbles” for better facial safety. But it’s the only top amateur league to do so, with others sticking to the sleeker, half-shield visors worn by NHL players.

Many collegians complain the full shields are tougher to see, breathe and communicate in. So, they happily ditch them when given the chance.

“It was definitely something that I guess a lot of us looked forward to – once you’re done juniors, you don’t have to wear a neck guard, and I guess the (NCAA) guys, once they’re done college, they can’t wait to take the cage off,” Dunn said.

Not to mention, with hockey being a sport that sometimes obsessively preaches team over individual, some players simply don’t want to stand out.

NHL players were initially ridiculed decades ago for introducing goalie masks, helmets and visors to their sport.

Montreal Canadiens legend Jacques Plante donned the first permanent goalie mask midgame in 1959 after taking a puck to the face requiring stitches. Plante’s fiberglass mask came nearly three decades after Clint Benedict of the NHL’s Montreal Maroons tried but quickly abandoned a leather face covering for two games in 1930 after suffering a broken nose.

There were plenty of broken bones, lost teeth and concussions for goalies in between – a famed 1942 photo of Boston Bruins netminder “Sugar” Jim Henry shows him with two black eyes, courtesy of a facial puck stop, while shaking hands with Canadiens’ great Maurice “Rocket” Richard following a playoff series.

Teammates, opponents and fans mocked and teased Plante for a while. Some goalies complained the masks were hot, uncomfortable and reduced vision. It took a decade for most goalies to switch over and 15 years before Andy Brown retired as the last maskless netminder.

Helmets were also slow to be adapted for similar reasons, even after Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died in 1968 when his head struck the ice during a game.

It took until 1979 for the NHL to mandate helmets – “grandfathering” it so players who hadn’t worn them didn’t need to switch. It wasn’t until 29 years after Masterton’s death that future coach Craig MacTavish of the Edmonton Oilers retired as the last helmetless player.

Wearing helmets, as with goalie masks, was viewed as a weakness by some. Never mind helmet visors, widely seen as even more cowardly when they began appearing in the NHL in the 1980s and 1990s.

Controversial Canadian hockey pundit Don Cherry didn’t help in 2003 when he proclaimed that only “European and French Canadian guys” wore visors, which, his fans knew, was not his definition of the toughest hockey players.

The NHL finally made visors mandatory in 2013-14, again grandfathering them in, after career threatening – and sometimes ending – eye injuries to players such as Pierre Mondou, Jean Hamel, Bryan Berard, Manny Malhotra and Chris Pronger. Only a few players still play without them.

The NHLPA wasn’t as strong when goalie masks and helmets were mandated. Nowadays, the league can’t just drastically implement equipment changes without the players and their union signing off. But that won’t happen if enough keep griping about comfort and feel.

As Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said this week, modern NHL players are more attuned to safety issues than prior generations. And as technology progresses, Hakstol added, they’ll become more receptive to equipment striking a balance between safety and comfort.

That change with neck protection, given the speed of modern tech advances, should come far sooner than it took helmets, masks and visors. But it won’t be immediate and will likely require prodding along the way, both from external forces and also within player ranks.

T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals experimenting with protective turtlenecks he had designed by a company he owns – and ordering some for his teammates – is a start in that direction.

No new neck protection technology will immediately feel perfect. And as with masks, helmets and visors, it will surely require initial comfort sacrifices. But nowhere near as uncomfortable as a skate blade to the throat.